Stormont Agriculture minister Edwin Poots vowed to be the “authentic voice” of unionism as he was elected as the new leader the DUP.
Mr Poots, who recently recovered from cancer surgery, defeated the DUP’s Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the battle to replace Arlene Foster, who announced her resignation last month.
The Lagan Valley MLA won by a razor-thin 19 votes to 17 in the poll carried out within the party’s 36-strong electoral college.
It was the first contested leadership vote in the DUP’s 50-year history.
Mr Poots has made clear that he would break with DUP tradition and not appoint himself Stormont first minister if elected party leader.
Wanting to focus “100%” on the leadership, he is set to appoint a party colleague to the role at the head of the powersharing administration at Stormont.
In his acceptance speech, Mr Poots, who has held four ministerial portfolios at Stormont in a long political career, pledged that the DUP would be the “authentic voice” for unionism under his leadership.
“It is an immense honour and pleasure to stand here today in this position, it is not a position that I expected to be in some weeks ago,” he said in an address at party headquarters in east Belfast.
“However, things can change quite radically.”
Mr Poots added: “I’m looking forward to a positive relationship right across Northern Ireland with my party colleagues and indeed with people from other parties.
“I think the opportunities for Northern Ireland are great, the opportunities for us to make Northern Ireland a great place after this 100 years has passed and we move into a new 100 years.”
Mr Poots praised the “resilience” of Northern Ireland people through many difficult decades.
“It’s that resilience that we are going to go forward (with) and make Northern Ireland a good place,” he said.
“My father was a founder member of the DUP some 50 years ago, and I joined after the death of the Reverend Robert Bradford MP in 1981 and throughout all of that period this party has been the authentic voice of unionism and will continue to be the authentic voice of unionism under my leadership.”
Mrs Foster was ousted after an internal heave by party colleagues unhappy with her leadership and will step down from that role on May 28, and as Stormont First Minister at the end of June.
Mr Poots will be leader designate until Mrs Foster formally stands down.
His election will now go to the party executive for ratification.
The DUP politicians eligible to vote comprised the party’s eight MPs and 28 Assembly members.
The voting by way of secret ballot took place at the party headquarters through Friday afternoon.
Ahead of the vote, Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey and his constituency colleague Mr Poots made final pitches for support in a virtual hustings event on Friday morning.
North Belfast MLA Paula Bradley was also elected the party’s new deputy leader on Friday.
She defeated East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell by 18 votes to 16.
In his speech, Mr Poots said he wanted to prioritise job creation and improving educational attainment in disadvantaged areas.
He said he wanted to tackle the problems within the region’s health service and address the spiralling treatment waiting lists.
He also urged fellow unionists to work with him to oppose Brexit’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, which has placed new economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.
“There’s much to do, there’s much to be done and I stand here today very proud to be taking up the mantle as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and that brings with it responsibility to all of unionism,” he said.
“I want to say this very clearly, I will be a leader in unionism who’ll be reaching out to other leaders in unionism.
“I want to see unionism working together.
“The Northern Ireland Protocol is proving 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’s for us to do that together.
“And I want to ensure that that is the case, that we don’t have the unionist bickering that we’ve had in the past, and I will encourage all unionists to work with me to deliver an end which ensures we set the foundations in this (year) 2021 for another 100 years of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.”
After his narrow defeat, Sir Jeffrey said he had no regrets standing in the race.
“What we sought to do was to offer the party a choice and I have no regrets about putting my name forward to give the party a clear choice in the decision they had to make,” he said.
“And they have made their choice and I respect that and now the party must consider what that means for our way forward, what it means for the Union that we all cherish and what it means for Northern Ireland, this place that is my home, a place that I love.”
Newly elected DUP deputy leader Ms Bradley said she would at times be a “critical friend” to Mr Poots.
She succeeds Lord Dodds in the role.
“It will be a great honour to serve this great party as deputy leader, I will do so to the very best of my ability, I will give it my all,” said Ms Bradley.
“I will support our leader in any way I can.
“I may be a critical friend at times to our leader, but what more could you expect from me other than that.”
She added: “There’s a lot of hard work that we need to do but I think if we remain focused and we remain grounded within our communities and know those issues that our communities have to face then we can meet that challenge and can rise to that challenge and take our great party forward.”
North Antrim MLA Paul Frew had initially been in the running for the deputy leader’s position but he withdrew from the race on Friday morning just ahead of the vote.