Is Northern Ireland Heading for Another Political Crisis?

Edwin Poots’s departure as leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party after just three weeks leaves the future of the region’s largest political group and its devolved government in jeopardy.

His exit caps a tumultuous six months for the DUP, which has plunged in the opinion polls as Brexit, and the economic border in the Irish Sea that came with it, disrupted trade and led to violence. In April, the party ousted Arlene Foster as leader amid anger among hard-line unionists that she had separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.

Poots’s ouster re-opens the possibility that the power-sharing agreement between the pro-British DUP and nationalist Sinn Fein will collapse, forcing elections that could loosen the DUP’s grip on power.

What happened?

Poots’s exit was triggered by a bitter fight within his party over his decision to nominate a candidate for first minister as part of an agreement with the U.K. government.

Is Northern Ireland Heading for Another Political Crisis?

In January 2020, the DUP agreed to Sinn Fein’s demand for new laws to promote the Irish language as a condition for rejoining the power-sharing executive, the joint unionist-nationalist government that runs Northern Ireland. But little progress has been made as the DUP dragged its feet over what many of its members viewed as a threat to their British identity.

Late on Wednesday, U.K. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis intervened, saying he would push an Irish Language Act through Westminster if the Assembly didn’t pass its own legislation by the end of September.

Poots may have been wary that opposing such a move could trigger fresh elections. Instead of pushing back against London, he went ahead and nominated Paul Givan to serve as first minister alongside Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s nominee for the post of deputy first minister.

A party meeting was held on Thursday afternoon, where the majority of DUP representatives voted against Poots’s decision, seeing it as a capitulation to Sinn Fein. He announced his resignation later that evening.

Who could replace Poots?

So far, nobody has formally announced their candidacy, but Jefferey Donaldson, who narrowly lost out to Poots in May’s vote, is seen as the most likely figure to replace him.

The 58-year-old already leads the DUP’s lawmakers in Westminster and is seen as a more moderate, modernizing figure. He recently warned of resignations in the party due to Poots’s leadership and said members may conclude it wasn’t capable of being “a broad church,” according to the Belfast Telegraph. He was one of the party officials who signed an email to Poots on Thursday urging him not to nominate Givan, according to RTE.

Other signatories of the email included former deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who had been seen as a possible contender to replace Foster, and Sammy Wilson, who represents East Antrim at Westminster, the broadcaster said.

Whoever takes on the role, they will face the formidable task of uniting a divided party.

What about the First Minister?

It’s unclear whether Paul Givan will step down as First Minister following Poots’ resignation. A new leader may want to nominate a replacement, or take on the role themselves, as former leader Arlene Foster did. Givan is seen as being a more conservative figure in the party.

If he steps down, he will return the situation to where it was earlier this week. Sinn Fein will also have to nominate a deputy first minister -- and may demand further concessions in return for taking part in government.

If both parties fail to nominate and endorse candidates for the positions within seven days of a resignation, Lewis may be forced to call elections.

What’s at stake?

If elections are held, there’s a growing chance the DUP could lose out. Support for the party fell to 16% in a May poll, level with the Alliance party, while Sinn Fein drew 25% support.

That could put Sinn Fein -- whose core goal is a united Ireland -- on course to nominate a First Minister for the first time since the Assembly was set up under the Good Friday Agreement.

With a power vacuum in unionism, the political makeup of Northern Ireland’s government could be about to change dramatically.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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