The leader of Northern Ireland’s biggest political party has agreed to step down just three weeks into the job, thrusting Stormont’s power-sharing government into fresh jeopardy less than 24 hours after Westminster interceded to prevent its collapse.
Edwin Poots announced his resignation as leader of the Democratic Unionist party on Thursday night following an internal revolt over the concessions he made against his party’s wishes in order to preserve Stormont’s devolved government.
Poots agreed to appoint Stormont’s new leadership team as part of a broader bargain that included Westminster’s ceding to the demand of nationalist party Sinn Féin for the swift introduction of pre-agreed legislation that enhances the status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland.
DUP members objected to both the principle of London’s intervention on what they argued was a domestic Northern Ireland matter and the fact that Sinn Féin had won a concession from a procedural quirk that required them to renominate their deputy first minister when the DUP’s previous first minister, Arlene Foster, was ousted.
“This has been a difficult period for the party and the country,” Poots said in his resignation statement, adding that he had “conveyed to the chairman my determination to do everything I can to ensure both unionism and Northern Ireland is able to move forward to a stronger place”. He will stay in place until a successor was found.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a Westminster MP who was narrowly defeated by Poots in May’s leadership contest, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Neither did Sammy Wilson, a senior DUP MP who spoke out publicly against Poots on Thursday afternoon and is also seen as a probable leadership contender.
The drama is the latest bout of turbulence fuelled by Brexit, which has provoked a crisis in unionism by creating a customs border in the Irish Sea. The mechanism, known as the Northern Ireland protocol, has inspired protests that have sometimes turned violent and was a key factor in April’s heave against Foster as Poots’ predecessor.
Earlier on Thursday, Poots had defied a DUP vote and nominated Paul Givan to be Northern Ireland’s new first minister, enabling the continuation of Stormont’s power-sharing government with Sinn Féin, which said it would co-operate only if the Irish Language Act were swiftly implemented.
Northern Ireland’s parliamentary rules mean that 39-year-old Givan, who first met Poots as a teenager and has been by his side ever since, can remain as first minister until he chooses. In practical terms,
“Givan’s position looks untenable,” Jonathan Tonge of Liverpool university told the Financial Times. “He was Poots’ man and the next DUP leader — Donaldson probably — might not want him.”
“Sinn Féin will have banked the [Northern Ireland secretary] Brandon Lewis pledge on Irish language and that will be demanded of the next first minister,” Tonge added. “The DUP’s exits are all blocked here.”
If the next head of the DUP asks Givan to step down and refuses to nominate a successor in protest at Westminster’s Irish language intervention, Stormont’s parliament would collapse, triggering a snap election.
Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at Ulster University, said Donaldson would probably “become leader without a contest. He will steady the ship and hope to put off an election for as long as possible.”
The DUP’s share of the vote has been falling steadily in recent opinion polls, with the latest suggesting support of 16 per cent versus Sinn Féin’s 25 per cent. Since Donaldson is not a member of Stormont, he would have to nominate someone else for the first minister’s position and may keep Givan “in the short term”, Heenan said.
Poots, who was swept to power appealing to unionism’s narrowest base by promising to be tougher on issues such as the Northern Ireland protocol, gay rights and abortion, had been expected to face a vote of no confidence after defying the party on Poots’ nomination.
“[The] next DUP leader must learn that playing hardball gets them nowhere,” tweeted Paula Bradshaw, a Stormont representative for the centrist Alliance party. “What you put out, you get back. The challenge is to work with the rest of us to deliver progress for all, not to circle the wagons.”
Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist party, on Thursday night described the “unedifying events around the DUP leadership” as “entirely inevitable”.
“Unionism deserves better and Northern Ireland deserves better,” he added. The UUP is the second-largest unionist party in Stormont.
Wilson told BBC Radio Ulster earlier on Thursday that DUP MPs and party’s members at Stormont had made it “very, very clear” in a vote that they were against Poots’ immediately nominating Givan.
“It’s difficult to have confidence in anyone who sets aside the strongly held views from all the various sections of the party and goes ahead,” added Wilson, referring to Poots.
“I guarantee that most unionist people . . . will be appalled that the powers of the assembly will . . . be set aside to promote a niche interest of Sinn Féin.”
Poots had said he was putting forward Givan without “a precondition from Sinn Féin” and the objective was to make Northern Ireland “a better place for everyone”.
The Irish language legislation, which includes creating a commissioner and measures to “enhance the development and use of the Irish language by public authorities”, was agreed by all Stormont’s parties in the New Decade, New Approach package that was the basis for restoring devolved government in 2020.
Given the political developments in Northern Ireland, Friday’s plenary meeting of the intergovernmental North South Ministerial Council has been postponed at the request of the North.