Northern Ireland’s embattled Democratic Unionist Party has set June 26 as the date to elect its third leader since the end of May, as it tries to end a chaotic period of infighting that has imperilled the region’s devolved government.
Edwin Poots was forced out as the DUP’s leader on Thursday evening after defying his party by agreeing a concession to nationalist Sinn Féin to save the region’s power sharing government from collapse.
The hardline creationist had been appointed just 21 days earlier on the premise that he would be tougher on fundamental unionist issues than Arlene Foster, who was ousted mostly for not doing enough to prevent a post-Brexit customs border in the Irish Sea. Unionists see the customs border as an assault on their identity.
The DUP said on Saturday night that it will accept nominations for Poots’ successor until noon on Tuesday. Jeffrey Donaldson, a Westminster MP who was narrowly defeated by Poots in last month’s election contest, is widely expected to run unopposed, people including DUP peer Lord Nigel Dodds and DUP Stormont member Jim Wells told the FT last week.
Votes will be counted next Saturday, and the new leader will be ratified by a full meeting of the DUP’s executive committee at a later date.
Paul Givan, who was nominated as first minister by his longtime mentor Poots last Thursday afternoon, is expected to remain in place until then, even though his appointment defied a vote of the DUP’s MPs and Stormont members. They were furious that the deal to continue Northern Ireland’s government after Foster’s departure was brokered on the basis that Westminster would directly intercede and grant Sinn Féin’s request for fast-tracked legislation to enhance the status of the Irish language.
Wells, who is a close ally of Poots, said that weekend reports of Givan being told to step down once a new leader is appointed “sound very accurate”. The DUP leader cannot legally remove the first minister. Wells said Givan would go if asked.
Once Givan steps down, the new leader must then decide whether to appoint another first minister on the basis agreed with Sinn Féin, or whether to refuse to appoint anyone. Such a move would trigger a snap election at a time when tensions are running high in the region against the backdrop of Brexit and intensifying talk of a united Ireland.
Ireland’s leader Michael Martin gave an upbeat assessment of the situation on Saturday, telling reporters: “We are always concerned in terms of how things can develop, particularly in a vacuum in terms of politics but, at the same time, I do think the capacity is there within the DUP and within political parties in the North to pull this back.”