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A row over the Irish language and the new First Minister has raised election talk in the North, what's it all about?

New DUP leader Edwin Poots won’t be putting himself forward but the new FM has not been confirmed.

democratic-unionist-party-new-leadership DUP leader Edwin Poots. Source: PA Images

NEW DUP LEADER Edwin Poots is reportedly set to announce his front bench tomorrow, with the nomination of First Minister becoming an increasingly contentious question.

Ahead of his election as DUP leader, Agriculture Minister Poots said he would nominate a colleague as First Minister, allowing him greater space to concentrate on his role as party leader. 

The past three DUP leaders have each also been First Minister: Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster. 

Foster was essentially pushed out of the leadership by party colleagues and resigned last month.

She had indicated she would stay on as First Minister until the end of June but has since confirmed that she will step down once Poots’ front bench is confirmed. She also confirmed that she would leave the party. 

“If Edwin decides that he wants to change that team, I will have to go as well because I can’t stay with a new ministerial team of which I have no authority, and that would be wrong,” she told reporters last week

Despite Foster’s departure and the leadership contest that saw Poots defeat MP Jeffrey Donaldson, there have been significant recriminations about how she was ousted. 

Another DUP MP, Gavin Robinson, shared a post which stated the treatment of Foster “was not done in our name”

Poots defeated Donaldson by the narrowest of votes among elected MPs, 19 to 17, but his win was seen as a victory for the more traditional wing of the party. 

Yesterday, Poots claimed the EU was using Northern Ireland as its “plaything” and, speaking about recent violence on the streets, suggested the European Commission “doesn’t seem to care about peace”. 

Poots’ nomination for the role of first minister may prove to be similarly divisive, with some claims that it may even lead to an Assembly election.

The mooted favourite to be nominated for the position is Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan. 

Givan is a former Communities Minister whose decision to cut funding for the Irish language was cited by Sinn Féin as one of the reasons it walked away from the Assembly in 2017.  

The Assembly remained down for three years. 

Former Stormont deputy first minister Martin McGuinness said the £50,000 reduction by Givan to the Líofa scheme, which enabled people to attend Irish classes, was one of the reasons he resigned.

A subsequent investigation by Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission found that the Givan-led Department of Communities failed to comply with its equality obligations in cutting the funding. 

The investigation found that equality assessment information was not included for the minister’s consideration.

The Líofa scheme funded at least 100 people a year to attend summer Irish language classes in the Donegal gaeltacht and was established by former Sinn Fein Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin.

Givan had been heavily criticised by republicans over his decision to cut the funding.

dup-leadership DUP MLA Paul Givan Source: PA Images

The prospect of him returning as First Minister has therefore prompted concerns in Sinn Féin over the impact it could have on Irish language rights and its funding. 

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald TD has reportedly written to other party leaders in Northern Ireland asking for an all-party meeting this week on the issue. 

Sinn Féin is in position to nominate for the role of Deputy First Minister and current Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey declined to say over the weekend if her party would refuse to make such a nomination if it didn’t receive the assurances it required over the Irish language.

The situation has led to speculation that Assembly elections may be called before they are due to take place in May 2022.

New UUP leader Doug Beattie was among those who have urged to the DUP and Sinn Fein to “keep the show on the road” and maintain the power-sharing government. 

Hargey said she wants to see commitments on Irish language legislation in the January 2020 New Decade New Approach deal acted on.

“Edwin Poots himself, who was one of the negotiators around New Decade New Approach back last year, he endorsed that agreement as well as the wider DUP,” she said.

I am hopeful in the engagement in the time ahead around all of the five parties in the Executive that we can bring that legislation through in this mandate. 

There have also been suggestions that Poots’ and the DUP may use the Irish language and the commitments made around it as a bargaining chip as part of efforts to change or remove the Northern Ireland Protocol.

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coronavirus-tue-mar-9-2021 Sinn Féin's would likely nominate Michelle O'Neill to continue as Deputy First Minister. Source: PA Images

Speaking on BBC’s The Nolan Show earlier today, former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt MLA said the Irish language and the Protocol are separate issues and should be treated as such. 

“The Irish Language Act is about culture and I don’t think your horse trade culture,” he said. 

Sinn Féin Senator Lynn Boylan was speaking to reporters this morning and said that her party will “work with anybody” but that Poots must stop using Brexit to explain violence on the streets. 

“We can’t have a situation where Edwin Poots is giving sort of veiled threats about violence around Brexit, so we need him to very categorically come out and say that he will resist any fomenting of any sort of anger or violence or anything like that in the north,” she said.

“If there is another election Sinn Féin will fight that election like it fights any election. But what we want to see is the Assembly delivering for the people of the North. Brexit was done and the DUP played a part in campaigning for Brexit and now they’re not happy with the consequences of that.” 

- With reporting by Press Association 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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