Northern Ireland: DUP leader to stand down following party revolt

DUP leader Edwin Poots (top) leaving the Chamber after nominating Paul Givan (bottom right) as First Minister, in the Stormont Assembly in Parliament Buildings in Belfast. Picture date: Thursday June 17, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story ULSTER Politics. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Edwin Poots said he will remain in post until his successor is elected (Picture: Getty/PA)

Edwin Poots is set to stand down as DUP leader after only three weeks in the job following an internal revolt against him.

He announced his decision to stand down after attending a three-hour crisis meeting of party officers in the DUP’s east Belfast HQ on Thursday.

The dramatic move came after the vast majority of DUP MLAs and MPs earlier voted against Mr Poots’ decision to proceed with reconstituting the Stormont Executive, amid party anger at a UK government pledge to grant Sinn Fein a key concession on Irish language laws.

His announcement came after a tumultuous 24 hours in Northern Ireland politics – a period in which powersharing appeared to have dodged another crisis following the nomination of First and deputy First Ministers in a special Assembly sitting, only for the administration to be plunged back into uncertainty hours later with Mr Poots’ departure.

Serious question marks now hang over the future of newly appointed Stormont First Minister Paul Givan, who was nominated alongside deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill earlier on Thursday.

It is unlikely a new DUP leader would keep him in position and he could well choose to quit of his own accord before he is replaced.

It is understood a planned meeting of ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive and Irish Government will not now proceed as planned in Armagh on Friday.

An electoral college made up of DUP MLAs and MPs will decide who will lead the party next. It remains to be seen whether it will be a contested race.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who lost last month’s leadership contest by 19 votes to 17, will be seen as a clear favourite by many.

Edwin Poots, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leaves the party headquarters in Belfast on June 17, 2021. (Photo by Paul Faith / AFP) (Photo by PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Poots leaving the party headquarters in Belfast (Picture: AFP via Getty)

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.’

Mr Poots was voted in as Arlene Foster’s successor on May 14, following a revolt against the former first minister instigated by supporters of Mr Poots.

The Lagan Valley MLA was formally ratified as leader on May 27, meaning he officially served just 21 days in the role.

On Thursday morning, a sizeable majority of MLAs and MPs voted against Mr Poots’ decision to reconstitute the powersharing Executive with Sinn Fein in what was a bruising internal meeting.

The vote was held just minutes before the process for nominating Stormont’s leaders began in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Members were furious that Mr Poots intended to nominate his Lagan Valley constituency colleague Paul Givan as First Minister after Sinn Fein convinced the UK government to legislate for Irish language laws at Westminster.

An announcement by the government in the early hours of Thursday, committing to pass the stalled laws in the autumn if they were not moved at the Stormont Assembly in the interim, was enough to persuade Sinn Fein to drop its threat not to nominate a deputy First Minister as joint head of the devolved Executive.

However, 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.

They claimed the DUP and the government were caving to ‘ransom’ politics by Sinn Fein.

The revolt against Mr Poots relates to a stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the thorny language issue which has been threatening the future of the fragile institutions in Belfast.

It came to a head this week as a result of the process required to reconstitute the Executive following the resignation of Mrs Foster as First Minister.

The joint nature of the office Mrs Foster shared with deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill meant her departure automatically triggered the removal of Ms O’Neill from her position – as one cannot hold post without the other.

DUP leader Edwin Poots during the nomination of Paul Givan as First Minister, in the Stormont Assembly in Parliament Buildings in Belfast. Picture date: Thursday June 17, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story ULSTER Politics. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Mr Poots was voted in as Arlene Foster’s successor on May 14 (Picture: PA)

While Mr Poots had vowed to implement all outstanding aspects of the 2020 New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal that restored powersharing, he has declined to give Sinn Fein a specific assurance that he would move on the language element of the NDNA deal in the current Assembly mandate, a key demand of the republican party.

Amid the dispute, earlier this week Sinn Fein asked the UK Government to step in and move the legislation at Westminster instead.

DUP figures had warned Secretary of State Brandon Lewis against such a step, calling it an overreach into devolution.

However, early on Thursday, the Secretary of State announced that the Government would table the language legislation at Westminster in October if Stormont had failed to do so by the end of September.

Mr Poots later voiced opposition to legislating on the issue at Westminster but said he would still proceed with nominating Mr Givan as First Minister.

This prompted outrage among the party’s elected representatives who viewed it as rolling over on a longstanding republican demand.

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