Northern Ireland's government could collapse AGAIN as DUP leader quits

Pooted out! Fears grow that power-sharing could collapse AGAIN in Northern Ireland as DUP leader Edwin Poots is brutally ousted after just THREE WEEKS in charge

  • Edwin Poots will stand down as DUP leader after just three weeks in charge
  • Poots had faced internal revolt from party figures over restarting power sharing
  • He nominated a DUP First Minister ‘without consultation’, angering colleagues
  • Facing vote of no-confidence, Poots said he would go when new leader is found

Fears are growing for the stability of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland today after DUP leader Edwin Poots resigned after just three weeks in charge of the fractured party.

Mr Poots announced plans to step down last night after a tumultuous 24 hours at Stormont left the unionists in disarray and devolution in the balance.

It means that Mr Poots becomes the shortest serving leader in DUP history. He was narrowly voted in as Arlene Foster’s successor on May 14, following a revolt against the former First Minister by his supporters.

But a majority of the DUP’s elected representatives turned on Mr Poots after he reached an agreement with Sinn Fein on Irish language legislation – a contentious issue for local unionists – to prevent the power-sharing executive from collapsing.

Mr Poots, a Christian creationist seen as a more hardline figure than Mrs Foster, also later disregarded a vote within the party and nominated ally Paul Givan as First Minister, sparking further fury.

The disarray has raised fears that the fragile Northern Ireland Assembly could collapse, just 18 months after it returned following a three-year hiatus.      

DUP leader Edwin Poots leaves a party meeting in Belfast tonight before announcing he would stand down from the role following an internal party revolt against him

Edwin Poots, leader of the DUP, leaves the party headquarters in Belfast on June 17, 2021

Poots latest casualty in war for soul of the DUP 

The row that led to Edwin Poots quitting as DUP leader may seem baffling to those outside Northern Ireland, being sparked by a row over the teaching of the Irish language. 

But stripped down to its basic form it was just the latest battle in a war for the soul of the ultra-unionist outfit.

Mr Poots was elected just three weeks ago after an internal coup by his supporters against Arlene Foster. 

Despite being seen as a hard-line thorn in Theresa May’s side over Brexit, many in her own party saw her as too moderate on social issues, including the legalisation of gay marriage and abortions.

They also wanted a far harder line on the implementation of the Brexit agreement.  Post-Brexit trade rules have imposed customs and border checks on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, angering Northern Ireland’s British unionists who say the new checks amount to a border in the Irish Sea and weaken ties with the rest of the UK.

Tensions over the new rules contributed to a week of street violence in Northern Irish cities in April that saw youths pelt police with bricks, fireworks and gasoline bombs.

Mr Poots, a Christian creationist who believes the Earth is just 6,000 years old, represents a more traditional faction in a party rooted in the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church.

Their defenestration of Mrs Foster lead to the first leadership election in the party’s 50-year history. But Mr Poots’ narrow margin of victory, 19-17 against MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, showed that all was not well.

Former party leader Peter Robinson branded the manner of her removal, which was instigated by Mr Poots’ supporters, as publicly humiliating, vindictive and needlessly nasty. 

That view was shared by a great number of DUP members – some of whom had their own issues with Mrs Foster’s leadership, but who nevertheless believed she should have been treated with more respect.  

His downfall this week started with the late-night deal over Irish language teaching in Northern Ireland. 

Sinn Fein had made clear it would only renominate Ms O’Neill if the party secured a guarantee that stalled language legislation agreed in the 2020 deal to restore powersharing would finally be implemented. A refusal by Sinn Fein to nominate would have crashed the Executive and prompted a snap election.

The legislation would enshrine protections for Irish speakers in Northern Ireland society, such as ensuring public bodies provide services in Irish. While the laws contain similar provisions for the Ulster Scots culture, in the political context the legislation has always been viewed as a top ticket item on the wish list of republicanism.

Mr Poots said he would implement the legislation but did not assure Sinn Fein he would do it in the current Assembly mandate. In response, Sinn Fein bypassed the DUP and asked the UK Government to introduce the laws at Westminster instead. 

Senior DUP figures criticised the suggestion, characterising it as an interference with devolution.

It therefore came as a shock to many DUP elected representatives when, in the early hours of Thursday morning, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis not only agreed to Sinn Fein’s request but also announced that Mr Poots was still happy to proceed with reconstituting the Executive on that basis.

Of the back of this, with anger already growing, he then insisted on pressing ahead with the nomination of his close friend Paul Givan as Stormont First Minister, despite opposition from a majority of his election representatives who were deeply unhappy that it would be accompanied by a major win for Sinn Fein.

A blistering internal meeting followed in a room in Stormont, with a mass uprising against Mr Poots’s proposed course of action.

Colleagues the party leader had appointed to senior roles only a week previously were openly opposing his decision. But he appeared unwilling to listen.

And this flew directly in the face of his leadership pitch to listen to a range of voices within the DUP, and to involve as many party members as possible in policy formation and major decisions.

A few minutes before the Assembly sat, Mr Poots and Mr Givan rose to their feet and walked out of the room while the meeting was still ongoing.

Despite a significant majority of DUP MPs and MLAs set against the move, the two close political allies headed to the chamber and proceeded with the nomination process.

But this rash decision was just more fuel for the fire and within hours, Mr Poots announced he would step down.

Mr Givan accepted the nomination and was confirmed as First Minister yesterday after Mr Poots pressed ahead at a special sitting of the Stormont Assembly.

He opted to proceed despite a morning of uncertainty which saw a significant majority of DUP Assembly members and MPs vote against Mr Poots at a stormy private meeting. 

Senior DUP figures wanted him to hold off on the nomination because they are unhappy about the terms he has agreed to reconstitute the powersharing administration after Sinn Fein secured a key concession on Irish language laws.  

In a quirk of the Stormont agreement, Mr Givan can only be removed as FM if he voluntarily resigns or Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill herself resigns.  

After the meeting DUP MP Sammy Wilson warned Mr Poots will have to ‘live with the consequence’ of defying his MPs and MLAs.  

But late last night, in a statement, Mr Poots said: ‘I have asked the party chairman to commence an electoral process within the party to allow for a new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party to be elected. 

‘The party has asked me to remain in post until my successor is elected.

‘This has been a difficult period for the party and the country and I have 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 was formally ratified as leader on May 27, meaning he officially served just 21 days in the role. 

His planned departure followed a dramatic 24 hours in Northern Irish politics.

A sizeable majority of MLAs and MPs voted against his decision to reconstitute the powersharing Executive with Sinn Fein in a bruising internal meeting just minutes before the process for nominating Stormont’s leaders began in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Sinn Fein had threatened not to fill the post of deputy because of a feud about protections for the Irish language. That would have mothballed the administration – under the power-sharing arrangements set up as part of Northern Ireland’s peace accord, a government can’t be formed unless both roles are filled.

The language issue cuts to the heart of tensions between Northern Ireland’s mostly Catholic nationalists, who see themselves as Irish, and Protestants, who largely identify as British.

The Northern Ireland Assembly, in which the DUP is the largest party, has failed to pass a law ensuring protections for the Irish and Ulster Scots languages, despite the power-sharing parties agreeing last year to do so.

But after crisis talks with the two parties, the British government said early Thursday it would step in and pass the legislation in the UK Parliament if the Belfast assembly did not do it by September.

Sinn Fein welcomed the move, with party leader Mary Lou McDonald saying it had broken the ‘logjam of DUP obstructionism.’ Mr Poots accused Sinn Fein of creating instability, but agreed to nominate a first minister.

That provoked fury from many DUP colleagues.

Members were furious that Mr Poots pressed ahead with nominating his Lagan Valley constituency colleague Paul Givan as First Minister, after Sinn Fein secured a key concession from the UK Government to legislate for Irish language laws at Westminster.

A post-midnight announcement by the Government, committing to pass the stalled laws at Westminster in the autumn if they were not moved at the Stormont Assembly in the interim, was enough to convince Sinn Fein to drop its threat not to nominate a deputy First Minister as joint head of the devolved Executive.

The development came after a night of intensive talks involving Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and DUP and Sinn Fein delegations in Belfast.

Many DUP politicians had warned against a Government intervention on such a sensitive devolved issue and they were enraged that Mr Poots was still prepared to enter a new coalition on that basis.

A meeting of DUP party officers got under way at party headquarters in Belfast, amid speculation Mr Poots could potentially face a vote of no confidence. 

Mr Poots left the meeting after 8pm, saying only ‘how are you’ to gathered media before being driven off in a waiting car.

He declined to respond to media questions about his leadership and whether he faced a motion of no confidence during the meeting.

Following the announcement by Mr Poots, a Sinn Fein spokesperson said: ‘Whoever leads the DUP is a matter for that party.

‘Sinn Fein has worked for weeks to bring stability to the Executive – our priority is our response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the continued successful rollout of the vaccination programme and rebuilding our economy to sustain jobs and livelihoods.

‘We have monumental challenges ahead that will require unity of purpose and urgency. They include tackling the totally unacceptable hospital waiting lists that have left people crucified, in pain and without hope.

‘That is our focus and should remain the focus of all ministers in the Executive.’ 

Edwin Poots is a creationist and farmer seen as a political hardliner –  who was involved in ousting ex-First Minister Arlene Foster. 

The 55-year-old father-of-four’s on LGBT rights have led to criticism – he has opposed gay men and women adopting children or giving blood in the past. 

 

He supported Christian bakers who in 2015 were found guilty of discrimination after refusing to make a cake for gay rights activists. 

But it is another part of his evangelical Christian beliefs that attract the most attention.  He is a ‘young earth creationist’ who rejects the theory of evolution and believes the world was made by God around 4,000 BC.

He has also criticised the theory of evolution and outspoken humanist scientist Richard Dawkins. 

The remaining DUP party officers left the meeting at their headquarters at 8.50pm, all departing together. 

All of them, including senior party figures such as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Diane Dodds, Sammy Wilson and deputy leader Paul Bradley, refused to speak to the media as they left.

A statement confirming Mr Poots’ intention to stand down was issued shortly after. 

The Irish language legislation is one of several outstanding elements of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal that resurrected powersharing in Northern Ireland after a three-year impasse.

Since becoming the new DUP leader, Mr Poots has repeatedly said he is committed to implementing all of the NDNA agreement.

Sinn Fein has however demanded specific and immediate action on the Irish language aspect, insisting the legislation must be tabled at Stormont ahead of the summer recess if it is to become law before the end of the current Assembly mandate next spring.

The cultural elements of the NDNA, which include protections for Irish and Ulster Scots speakers, would be delivered in the form of amendments to the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.

With the law changes having already been drafted as part of the NDNA deal, the draft legislation can commence its journey through the Assembly once the Executive gives it the green light.

A former special adviser to Arlene Foster last night accused Edwin Poots of making ‘monumental mistakes’ in the 24 hours before his resignation. 

Emma Little Pengelly, also a former DUP MP, said he had failed to demonstrate the necessary leadership.

She told BBC NI’s The View: ‘Edwin was clearly very, very keen to take the leadership, there were many in the party unhappy about the way that it was done.

‘It was then over to him then to demonstrate why he felt it was necessary.

‘What were the changes that he felt needed to happen?

‘However, over the course of the last two weeks we haven’t seen that – for example in terms of North South relations, the protocol and of course what has happened over the last 24 hours.’

She added: ‘What has happened over the last 24 hours, last night and into today seem to have been monumental mistakes’.

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