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What happens next in Northern Ireland after DUP meltdown?

·5-min read
Edwin Poots (PA)
Edwin Poots (PA)

The DUP is yet again looking for a new leader after the disastrous tenure of Edwin Poots – forced out last night after only 20 days in charge of the party.

His departure followed a heated three-hour crisis meeting of party officers in Belfast on Thursday night, which saw an angry party revolt against his decision to agree a deal with Sinn Fein and nominate a new first minister.

It leaves delicate power-sharing arrangements at Stormont in disarray – and raises the prospect of the Northern Ireland Executive once again collapsing, as it did in 2017.

Why was Edwin Poots forced out?

It was made clear to Mr Poots he had to resign at a “robust” three-hour meeting with party figures last night. DUP MPs and MLAs hated the fact that he had agreed a deal giving the Irish language equal status in Northern Ireland.

Mr Poots had chosen to do a deal with Sinn Fein and push through Paul Givan’s nomination as first minister on Thursday – despite DUP pleas to keep stalling in the stand-off.

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis had made clear to Mr Poots that the UK government would intervene and pass Irish language legislation at Westminster in October, should the executive fail to do so before then.

Sammy Wilson said party figures had been “very, very clear" that Mr Poots should not have forged ahead with Mr Givan’s nomination (and the Irish language deal) before they had chance to put his appointment to an internal vote.

Mr Poots hadn’t proved too popular during his three weeks in charge. He was perceived to have failed to reach out to more moderate supporters of his defeated rival Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

The firebrand wing was also disappointed. Prior to his election, DUP ministers had been engaged in a de facto boycott of north-south political meetings over Brexit trading arrangements.

But within a week of his ratification, Mr Poots announced a reengagement in such meetings after holding talks with Irish premier Micheal Martin in Dublin.

Paul Givan with Edwin Poots (AP)
Paul Givan with Edwin Poots (AP)

Who will replace him as DUP leader?

The DUP is looking for Mr Poots’ replacement “at pace” only a few weeks on from its last leadership election, having unceremoniously ousted Arlene Foster.

It remains unclear whether there will be another contest this time round – or whether the party will revert to its more familiar tradition of a backroom, unopposed coronation.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who lost May’s contest by a razor thin margin, will be seen as a clear favourite by many. It appears the job is his, if he still wants it.

The MP is the party’s current leader at Westminster. The former Ulster Unionist is seen as more moderate than Mr Poots, with a political outlook more broadly in line with Arlene Foster.

But several others might fancy a shot at the job: MLA Paula Bradley; MP Gavin Robinson; MP Ian Paisley Jr and the irrepressible MP Sammy Wilson.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson arrives for crisis meeting on Thursday night (PA)
DUP MP Sammy Wilson arrives for crisis meeting on Thursday night (PA)

What does it mean for power-sharing arrangements with Sinn Fein?

Serious question marks now hang over the future of newly appointed first minister Paul Givan – despite his formal nomination alongside deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill on Thursday.

A new DUP leader may not choose to keep him in position, and he could well quit of his own accord before he is replaced. But a functioning executive in Northern Ireland relies on the approval of both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

So any refusal by Sinn Fein to nominate a new first minister – or any attempt by the DUP to resume its stance over the Irish Language Act – could crash the executive and prompt the UK government to call a snap election.

Because of the almighty mess, a meeting of ministers from the Northern Ireland executive and Irish government will no longer proceed in Armagh as planned on Friday.

One senior DUP figure told The Telegraph they’d never seen anything like it, adding: “It is a bizarre and grotesque.”

UK government officials are trying look on the bright side. One Whitehall source told The Times they hoped the DUP would now accept the Irish language deal – believing Mr Poots’ exit was down to a wider disappointment in his leadership.

“We are reasonably confident that the deal will survive,” they said.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said on Friday he had been in touch with the NI secretary Brandon Lewis about the latest developments, and was confident the UK government would still introduce an Irish Language Act if Stormont does not.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (left) with deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill (PA)
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (left) with deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill (PA)

What have Sinn Fein and other parties said about the mess?

There was little sympathy for the Mr Poots from either nationalist or unionist politicians reacting to his departure. “Whoever leads the DUP is a matter for that party,” said a Sinn Fein spokesman.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said the “unedifying” events were “inevitable” and urged executive ministers to focus on the job.

“It doesn’t matter who the leader of the DUP is because they will face the same critical issues which were negotiated and agreed on their watch.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “Maybe it’s time for some grown up politics. I, for one, am sick of this soap opera.”

The Alliance MLA for South Belfast Paula Bradshaw tweeted: “The next DUP leader must learn that playing hardball gets them nowhere. What you put out, you get back.”

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