Edwin Poots has defended his strategy as the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) new leader after criticism by one of his predecessors, Peter Robinson.
Writing in the News Letter, the ex-leader and former first minister said decisions being made by those advising Mr Poots “can only damage his prospects of moving the party forward”.
Mr Poots rejected that comment, saying Mr Robinson was “out of the loop”.
“What was good for Peter doesn’t seem to be good for anybody else,” he said.
Insisting his leadership would differ from that of Arlene Foster, who he has replaced at the helm of the party, Mr Poots said: “What you’re going to see is incremental change.
“Step by step we will ensure that the fortunes of the party are better and the fortunes of unionism per se are better,” he told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme.
Last week, the DUP endorsed an earlier vote by assembly members and MPs to make Mr Poots leader.
But it came amid anger from within the party about how Mrs Foster was ousted last month.
In his News Letter column, Mr Robinson contrasted how Ian Paisley – the DUP’s first leader – was removed “sensitively” with the “needlessly nasty” nature of Mrs Foster’s toppling and urged Mr Poots to accept that had been a mistake.
“Politics is a rough trade and of course it must hurt if a political career is ended before the participant’s preferred time,” wrote Mr Robinson.
“But the savage slaying of a leader in the public eye was totally unnecessary and vindictive.”
He wrote that it was “counterproductive” and had “caused serious damage to the party and equally inflicted self-harm upon her successor”.
“One has to wonder what kind of strategy those advising Edwin are following when they took – and continue to take – decisions which can only damage his prospects of moving the party forward,” he added.
Mr Poots responded by saying: “The problem that Peter has is that he’s out of the loop and therefore doesn’t know exactly what was going on or what happened.
“The only thing different in how things were done when Peter became leader and when I became leader is that, actually, the people who made things public were people who were not in the Poots camp.”
On Thursday Mr Poots said he would lead DUP ministers at this month’s North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting in Dublin.
He had denied boycotting some meetings in protest against the post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland, known as the Northern Ireland Procotol.
The protocol is the part of the Brexit deal that effectively creates a trade border in Irish Sea, meaning checks apply to goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
After his first meeting as DUP leader with Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Micheál Martin, Mr Poots said they had “positive, frank and useful” talks, mostly about the protocol.
Mr Martin said they had shared an “open exchange of views”.
Sinn Féin vice-president and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it was right that DUP ministers would attend NSMC meetings, saying that was “where they should be”.
“I think [Mr Poots] was feeling the pressure clearly because it wasn’t acceptable for his party to continue in that vein,” she said on Friday.
However, TUV leader Jim Allister criticised Mr Poots’ decision and described it as a “total flip flop”.
He said members of the DUP who backed Edwin Poots and thought they were getting “strong leadership” are going to be “very disappointed”.
The DUP leader was accompanied at that meeting by close ally and senior DUP MLA Paul Givan.
Mr Givan is one of the favourites to be appointed first minister, with Mr Poots having said he will not take on the role and will instead remain agriculture minister.
Mr Givan told the BBC’s The Nolan Show that he had spoken to Mr Poots about “the kinds of responsibilities people are prepared to take on”.
“I’ve made it clear to Edwin that whatever role he wants me to do I’ve never shied away from taking on that responsibility,” he said.
“Edwin has not asked me to [become first minister] and I have not asked to do that role.
“That is ultimately a decision for Edwin to take.”
The Ulster Unionists and the Alliance Party have warned that political instability could be sparked by “dithering” over the appointment of a new first minister.
Mr Poots also attended a meeting of Stormont party leaders on Thursday at which it was agreed to convene a summit to start dealing with Northern Ireland’s hospital waiting lists crisis.
More than 335,000 people are waiting for a first consultant-led appointment, meaning Northern Ireland has the worst waiting times of any UK region.
John Compton, a former chief executive of the health service in Northern Ireland, said that solving the crisis was the biggest ever test for Stormont politicians.
“I don’t think anybody now disputes that people are having their lives curtailed or dying because of the extent of waiting times,” he told The Nolan Show.
Mr Poots said the lists had grown at a “shocking rate” between 2017 and 2020 when the power-sharing administration was not functioning due to disagreements between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the two biggest parties.
“We do recognise that the waiting lists that have been allowed to develop in Northern Ireland are entirely unreasonable,” he said.
Ms O’Neill said she had asked the UK government for financial help to deal with the waiting lists.