The future of power-sharing in Northern Ireland was in jeopardy on Thursday night as the DUP’s new leader was forced to resign following a full-scale revolt over his chosen candidate for the role of first minister.
Just 20 days after replacing Arlene Foster as party leader, Edwin Poots announced he would step down hours after he nominated one of his former advisers as the new head of the Stormont executive against the wishes of his party.
His resignation statement followed an emergency meeting of the DUP’s officers, which came after senior figures in the party had threatened a vote of no confidence in Mr Poots.
He will remain in post until a new leader is elected. Mrs Forster, his predecessor, only stepped down as party leader on April 28.
Mr Poots chose to push through Paul Givan’s nomination as first minister just moments before a majority of the DUP’s elected representatives rejected him in an internal party vote.
Paul Givan during his nomination for First Minister, in the Stormont Assembly
Credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
While the leader of Northern Ireland’s largest party has historically also been appointed first minister, Mr Poots announced after his election last month that he would split the two roles so he could focus on managing the DUP.
All this came only hours after Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, had convinced Sinn Fein not to collapse the power-sharing agreement over their opposition to Mr Givan’s appointment.
Mr Lewis had promised that Westminster would implement legislation to protect the Irish language if required, a key demand of the republican party, but Mr Poots’s decision to agree to reconstituting the executive on these terms infuriated many in his party.
Thursday night’s chaos now threatens to unleash further instability, with several DUP insiders speculating that the power-sharing agreement could still collapse again in the coming days.
Mr Givan was officially confirmed as first minister, despite a majority of his party’s assembly members and MPs rejecting his candidacy.
Aged 39, he is the youngest politician ever to hold the post.
Former DUP leader Arlene Foster (pink blazer) interacts with Members of the Legislative Assembly during a photocall for female MLA's on the steps of Stormont
Credit: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
A senior DUP figure told The Telegraph they had never witnessed anything like it in their political career, adding: “It is a bizarre and grotesque decision. Even if the party found a way through it, I think they would be completely discredited with the public."
Mr Givan’s appointment, confirmed shortly after midday on Thursday, quickly descended into chaos, with several senior DUP figures immediately calling for Mr Poots’s resignation.
The DUP’s party officers on Thursday night convened an emergency meeting to discuss their next steps. Before entering, Sammy Wilson MP, told reporters: “If you have no followers, you can’t be a leader, can you?"
However, The Telegraph has been told that even with Mr Poots gone, the rules of the Stormont Assembly mean that the only way to remove Mr Givan is for him to resign.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson arrives at the DUP headquarters in Belfast for a meeting of the party officers, as party leader Edwin Poots faces questions about his leadership
Credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
DUP representatives opposed to Mr Givan’s nomination believed splitting the role of party leader risked “demeaning the office” of first minister and were angered by the agreement reached with Sinn Fein.
Others are frustrated at Mr Poots’s failure to take a tougher stance with the UK Government over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is causing significant disruption for consumers and businesses.
Mr Givan is also blamed by many for helping to collapse the power-sharing agreement in 2017 after choosing to cut funding to Irish language schemes the previous year as communities minister.
The decision, along with the DUP presiding over a major energy scandal, infuriated Sinn Fein and led to the then deputy first minister Martin McGuiness resigning. It triggered a three-year paralysis in which Northern Ireland had no functioning government.
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, has branded recent comments by Leo Varadkar, the former Irish president, on Irish reunification 'ill-advised' and 'unhelpful', and urged all sides to 'dial down the rhetoric'
Credit: JULIAN SIMMONDS FOR THE TELEGRAPH
Stormont was eventually restored after the two parties signed a new agreement in January 2020, which included a commitment to new Irish language legislation.
However, Sinn Fein feared that Mr Givan’s appointment could see this commitment blocked and had threatened to collapse the power-sharing agreement.
This forced Mr Lewis to convene emergency talks, during which he reassured Sinn Fein that Westminster would legislate on Irish language if Stormont failed to do so by the end of September.
The DUP and Sinn Fein then agreed terms.
While the backlash over Mr Givan’s appointment now threatens further uncertainty, Whitehall sources insisted they expected the DUP to honour the agreement.