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By Clodagh Kilcoyne
BELFAST, May 14 (Reuters) – Northern Ireland’s pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) elected Edwin Poots as its new leader on Friday as the region’s largest party bids to ramp up its campaign against post-Brexit trade barriers.
Poots, seen by some commentators as more aggressive in his opposition to the trade barriers and more conservative on social issues than his opponent, narrowly beat fellow senior member Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17 among the party’s lawmakers.
Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister takes over at a time of instability in the British province and unionist anger over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol that installed a customs border with the rest of the United Kingdom.
“The Northern Ireland protocol has proven to be a massive challenge for us and if we are to fight this, to ensure that everybody in Northern Ireland is not worse off as a consequence of the protocol then it is for us to do that together,” Poots said after being elected.
“This party has been the authentic voice of unionism and will continue to be the authentic voice of unionism under my leadership. I will be a leader in unionism who will be reaching out to other leaders in unionism.”
The protocol leaves Northern Ireland within the EU’s trading sphere, avoiding a hard border on the island with EU-member Ireland but infuriating pro-British unionists by undermining the region’s place in the UK.
It was partly blamed for recent rioting by young pro-British loyalists. A legal challenge against the arrangements launched by the DUP and two other unionist parties began on Friday.
Friday’s contest was the first ever leadership election held by the staunchly socially conservative party founded by firebrand Protestant cleric turned peacemaker Ian Paisley 50 years ago.
Poots, a young earth creationist who rejects the theory of evolution, has said he plans to nominate another party member to replace Arlene Foster as Northern Ireland’s first minister and split the roles of party and devolved government leader.
He is one of a number of DUP ministers who have protested against the Brexit arrangements by refusing to attend meetings with Irish counterparts established under the 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.
That has strained relations with Irish nationalist rivals Sinn Fein, with whom it leads Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government. (Additional reporting by Kate Holton in London, writing by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Catherine Evans/Guy Faulconbridge)