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By Clodagh Kilcoyne
BELFAST, May 14 (Reuters) – The pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland on Friday elected Edwin Poots as its new leader as the region’s largest party intends to step up its campaign against post trade barriers -Brexit.
Poots, seen by some commentators as more aggressive in his opposition to trade barriers and more conservative on social issues than his opponent, narrowly beat his colleague Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17 among party lawmakers.
Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister takes over at a time of instability in the British province and Unionist anger over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit protocol which has established a customs border with the rest of the Kingdom -United.
“The Northern Ireland Protocol has proven to be a big challenge for us and if we are to fight this, to ensure that not everyone in Northern Ireland is in a worse situation because of the Protocol, so it’s up to us to do it 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 union leader who will contact other union leaders.”
The protocol leaves Northern Ireland in the EU’s trade 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.
He has been partly blamed for the recent riots by young pro-British loyalists. A legal challenge to the arrangements launched by the DUP and two other Unionist parties began on Friday.
Friday’s contest was the first-ever leadership election organized by the socially conservative party firmly founded by fire-killer Protestant cleric turned peacemaker Ian Paisley 50 years ago.
Poots, a young creationist from Earth who rejects the theory of evolution, said he plans to appoint another party member to replace Arlene Foster as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and to split the roles of party and head of decentralized government.
He is one of a number of DUP ministers who protested the Brexit deals by refusing to attend meetings with their Irish counterparts established under the 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.
This has strained relations with his Irish nationalist rivals, Sinn Fein, with whom he heads the power-sharing government of Northern Ireland. (Additional reporting by Kate Holton in London, written by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Catherine Evans / Guy Faulconbridge)