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Northern Ireland: Paul Givan takes over as first minister, but his party is in crisis

Newly confirmed Northern Ireland  first minister Paul Given walking alongside the then leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Edwin Poots in Dublin, Ireland June 3, 2021.
Changing face of unionist politics: new first minister, Paul Givan with the now former DUP leader, Edwin Poots. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Northern Ireland has a new first minister – its youngest ever. But as a mark of the strife and confusion which so often characterises Stormont politics, within hours of the confirmation of the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Paul Givan, 39, in the top job, the party had to deal with the resignation of its shortest serving leader, Edwin Poots, who lasted just 21 days. Outsiders may already be confused, as the two roles are currently separate. But the confirmation of the former triggered the departure of the latter.

More confusing still, Givan is a close ally of Poots. He had been widely tipped as the former DUP leader’s nomination for the first minister role. Poots had made a promise as part of his campaign for the DUP leadership that he would not be head of the Stormont executive.

This was to show his commitment to reforming the DUP, suggesting that he would forgo the limelight to concentrate on this and involve other party members in the overall leadership operation. The aim was to suggest a greater team effort, and more accountability in the DUP.

It was also an implicit rebuke of Arlene Foster’s leadership, presented as being more top down, and may have helped Poots narrowly defeat the rival candidate, Jeffery Donaldson, seen as representing the more “Fosterite” wing of the DUP.

But Poots’ marginal victory immediately prompted open dissent within the party – and even resignations. Donaldson’s backers questioned whether Poots, reflecting a more conservative outlook and religious ethos, could win back the votes the party seems to be losing among younger and more liberal unionists.

Despite the divisions within the DUP, an even greater obstacle to Poots’ agenda emerged when Sinn Féin threatened to veto the nomination of any successor to Foster, who stepped down as first minister on June 15 following her ousting as DUP leader in April. So far, so confusing – right?

Power sharing

The rules of power-sharing at Stormont effectively allow either Sinn Féin or the DUP to veto the first and deputy first minister nominations, and so gridlock the assembly. The rules also gave the two parties seven days after Foster’s resignation to find agreement on the matter. But Sinn Féin was insisting that it would not proceed without gaining a firm commitment by the DUP to support legislation to protect and promote the Irish language.

This had been agreed as part of the last deal made to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland in January 2020 – and indeed on many previous occasions. Under Poots, the DUP continued to say it would legislate on the Irish language, but refused to confirm a date for this. Sinn Féin clearly ran out of patience on the issue, hence a standoff which most commentators felt would run at least till the June 21 deadline for agreement on a new Stormont leadership team.

But a surprising solution arrived well ahead of that, with Sinn Féin saying go raibh maith agat (thank you) to the British government after it promised legislation on the Irish language at Westminster if the DUP failed to do so. Some were surprised that republicans were accepting the word of the Johnson administration on the matter. It is not seen as the most trustworthy on many issues – but particularly Northern Ireland. This is especially the case given its refusal to honour parts of the Brexit deal relating to the region.

But it was Poots that was taking the greater risk, pressing ahead with the nomination of Givan as first minister even after a rebellion within the DUP. Reports suggest that a party meeting held on the morning of June 17 saw only four of the DUP’s 28 representatives in the Belfast Assembly support the move. However, along with Sinn Féin, Poots proceeded to nominate the new first and deputy first minister team, despite the opposition of most of his DUP colleagues. Following this, a further DUP meeting took place in the evening, after which Poots announced his resignation.

Crisis for unionism

This is Northern Ireland’s centenary year, but what should have been a celebration for unionists has turned into an unprecedented crisis. Indeed, Foster was forced to resign just days before the official birthdate of the state on May 3. There was further shock when the leader of the smaller UUP quit just days later – and now a third unionist leader has been forced out in as many months.

Former DUP leader and Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster answering questions from journalists.
Old guard: former DUP leader and Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster. EPA-EFE/Andy Rain

It is hard not to trace the ultimate cause of this instability to Brexit, with the terms of Johnson’s deal establishing customs checks on the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Unionists feel this further separates them from the rest of the UK, while effectively remaining under EU jurisdiction aligns the region towards integration with the Republic of Ireland.

This, the now constant discussion of a border poll, and republicans’ continued momentum – with polling trends suggesting that Sinn Féin will soon hold power in Dublin as well as Belfast – is unnerving for unionists. Moves towards Irish language legislation just add to their anxieties. Again, the sense is that this will further undermine the “Britishness” of Northern Ireland, preparing the way for Irish reunification.

It is surprising that Poots, seen as a more traditional unionist, thought that he could act as if the deal between Sinn Féin and the British government was unconnected to his move to make Givan first minister. Clearly, most DUP members felt that they would be seen to have facilitated the progress of Irish language legislation – just as the party is seen to have aided Johnson’s Brexit deal, despite voting against it.

This is the dilemma for any new unionist leader. Even if Donaldson is now crowned, what room will he now have for manoeuvre? How can anyone lead unionism when it is clearly paralysed by fear?

Foster is obviously glad to be done with the role. Gently mocking yesterday’s developments at Stormont, she tweeted that she had just enjoyed lunch at one of Belfast’s top restaurants, and wished everyone a “great day on this lovely sunny afternoon”. But it is hard not to think that the sunshine was just a prelude to an uncomfortably hot summer in Northern Ireland, with the marching season about to begin.

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