According to the Belfast Telegraph, Edwin Poots is proud to be a ‘marmite politician.’ If we take this metaphor to mean what it seems to mean, then the potential new first minister is comfortable with 50% of the population of Northern Ireland disliking or hating him, provided that the other 50% are rather found of him—although perhaps only if he is served with a cup of tea.
Northern Ireland is unusual, though not unique, in that its governmental system is more or less designed around the idea of any one politician, or party, only gaining an upper limit of 50% support from the population. It is diverting however, to consider just what percentage of Northern Ireland is likely to support Mr Poots’ leadership. I’ll take as read that, whatever Robert Peston thinks, there are few Nationalists who would vote for Edwin Poots.
Here then is a list of groups who are unlikely to enjoy the taste of marmite Mr Poots, even if he was heated and spread over toasted bread.
Edwin Poots does not like gay people, trans people and people of nonconforming gender and sexual identities. While this makes him no different from his DUP peers, it is worth underlining just how vehemently and publicly Mr Poots has broadcast his hatreds. Here are some quotes and deeds from the man himself;
On Civil Partnerships between gay men and women – ‘unnatural in the first instance… abominable in the second instance.’ This quote has been widely shared but it is worth reminding oneself of how disgusting this hatred is.
While Minister for health – Poots upheld the ridiculous and discriminatory ban on Gay men donating blood. Interestingly, he pejoratively compared gay sex to people having sex with sex workers and ‘Africans’. So, we can add the population of the second largest continent on earth to those likely to oppose Mr Poots’ leadership. The racism that underlay this remark suggests that Poots does not confine his hatreds to one ethnic group.
On Gay adoption – Mr Poots declared gay couples adopting children to be a ‘violation of the natural order’ of life. He announced that this fact should hold ‘whether one believes in God, in evolution’. Quite what opposition the blind watchmaker of evolutionary science could hold to a child entering a loving and supportive household, Mr Poots did not care to elaborate.
Poots is a rank and committed homophobe. His own recent quietness on the topic merely reflects the cowardice that grips his homophobic party. The DUP are aware that no significant section of NI society matches their absurd and, thankfully increasingly anachronistic, hatreds. I understand the requests some people have made in recent days for Mr Poots to declare whether he still holds these views or not, but Poots’ bad faith makes any demands worthless. He does not declare his feelings as he is aware that society will not stand for them anymore.
In any case, Poots’ actions are a truer representation of his feelings. He was one of the majority of DUP MLAs that voted against the banning of conversion therapy. The ban was gracefully unimpeded by Poots and his allies. Their actions were justified however, in the name of protecting ‘religious freedom’. Poots can claim to have a more capacious understanding of legitimate religion than me. I draw that line some distance before torture.
Scientists and Teachers
Poots represents a decidedly old-school DUP ethos. He wears his creationist credentials proudly. I have rarely been as embarrassed as when I heard Poots on a British Radio show talking to a scientist and proudly joking that, as the Big Bang was an explosion (it was not), it could not have created the universe. He added that people in Northern Ireland know more about explosions than most, so he could vouch for the soundness of his own theory. Listening to this childish nonsense, I felt like cringing myself into a singularity and waiting out the heat death of this current universe—allowing hawking radiation to glacially chip away at my embarrassment on Poots’ behalf.
I’m not a 14-year-old Internet Atheist anymore so I’m not overly concerned by Poots’ side-line in denying evolution. The problem with his irrationalism runs deeper than the reheated Scopes-Trial debates of 2005. What concerns me is Poots’ inability to engage intelligently with science and his lack of understanding of the complex and messy way that scientific understanding is built.
This commitment to irrationalism drove one of Edwin Poots recent auto-humiliations, when he tried to blame the spread of Covid on Catholics. Last summer, Poots spent a few months attempting to convince the world that it was the followers of the dreaded church of Rome who were poisoning loyal Ulster with a serious respiratory illness. His meandering and idiotic reasons for why this might be true ranged from insinuating that it was Republican funerals that spread all of our Covid, to seeming to suggest that everyone in the badly hit Derry and Strabane must be a catholic. If Edwin Poots really believes that he can just blame the fenians for Covid, then he is not only a sectarian but a man totally unequal to the task of leading NI out of the pandemic.
I would be more equivocal on this were we not still in this deadly pandemic. The ability of political leaders to understand the scientific information being presented to them is perhaps the key skill required of them right now. From Boris Johnsons ‘piles’ of dead to Nahendra Modi’s pandemic campaign rallies, the world is littered with illustrations of the danger of irrational and anti-science leaders. Poots past statements make him a contender to join such company.
If Poots is truly happy being hated by 50% of the country, then perhaps he will not be much moved by losing this particular group. He does not seem to believe that the political opinions of women are of much value. Upon Arlene Foster’s assumption of the First Minister’s office, Poots declared in public that his new boss’s most important job ‘has been, and will remain, that of a wife, mother and daughter’. Perhaps this was part of his motive in organising the overthrow of Foster in the past month. Poots ideas on women are quite clear; Women are to remain in the Oikos where possible and ought to be sidelined when they intrude upon the Polis.
Not that Arlene Foster or her party was much help to the rights and emancipation of women. Despite the legislative efforts of Westminster and of other NI parties, abortion provision remains inaccessible in much of the country. This is thanks to the delaying tactics of the DUP. The party is furious at being no longer unable to abuse Stormont’s Petition of Concern system to prevent women’s bodily autonomy. Any ground that Poots cedes on this issue will not come easily.
Poots is unlikely to lead his party, and the country, towards greater gender equality.
It is commonplace to wish a political leader the best when they are assuming office, even when you profoundly disagree with them. I don’t really understand this impulse. Why should I wish the best for a powerful politician who has a record of hating other people and of trying to harm those with whom he disagrees? Poots actions and words give every indication that he is opposed to my own deeply held beliefs. It is therefore not irrational to oppose him and his political agenda. The sophistic and chummy well-wishes of political writers can be discarded as just another example of the hollowness of much media discourse.
Rather, I wish the best for the groups named in this post and indeed for all those others who might find themselves on the wrong side of the new DUP leader’s opinions. I hope that Mr Poots worse impulses are minimised and restrained. I hope that Northern Ireland continues to become a more welcoming and equal place for minorities and oppressed groups of all kinds.