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Arise, Sir Jeffrey? What happens next after the DUP meltdown?

Is it a one-horse race and what does that mean for power-sharing?

first-and-deputy-first-minister-nomination Poots sits in the Stormont Assembly yesterday. Source: PA Images

A SCARCELY BELIEVABLE day in Northern Irish politics yesterday. 

It started with a DUP leader and no First Minister and ended with a First Minster and no DUP leader

This of course followed another whirlwind few weeks where Arlene Foster was deposed and Edwin Poots elected to succeed her. 

His stint as just the fourth leader of the 50-year-old party lasted only weeks but his departure could have lasting repercussions. 

Just what could they be and what does it mean for power-sharing and indeed the wider political landscape? 

Who will succeed Poots and will there even be a vote?

The morning after the night before and there is only really one name being spoken about in terms of who will replace Poots. 

Jeffrey Donaldson MP lost out to Poots in the electoral contest by the smallest of margins, 19 votes to 17, and is the clear favourite to replace him

Sammy Wilson MP has also been mentioned but Donaldson is the clear frontrunner and perhaps wouldn’t face opposition if he was interested.  

Donaldson had been the slight favourite to win the electoral contest between them and reportedly expected it himself based on an internal headcount. 

On the way into the DUP meeting last night at which Poots’ resignation was decided, Donaldson told reporters: “What a lovely day.” 

The Lagan Valley MP had been billed as perhaps the more moderate of the two candidates but the nature of the contest, in which there were no public hustings, meant that the race was as much about character and alliances as policy. 

With Poots’ implosion the DUP is likely to place a premium on stability and another election may not even take place. 

Poots was chosen as DUP leader by a vote of MPs and MLAs and it was was the first time the DUP had voted on a leader. It may be the last for the foreseeable future. 

Ian Paisley Sr. was the founder and first leader of the party, with successors Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster essentially taking over after they faced no opposition.

If Donaldson is chosen it may perhaps be somewhat of a coronation for the MP who was knighted by in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2016

Speaking on The View on BBC One Northern Ireland last night, former DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly said that the process of selecting a new leader would likely be a quick one. 

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is probably the most likely candidate to put his name forward. What I don’t know would be if there’s other people who might be interested in that. I do suspect though that the party will want stability as quickly as possible. I therefore think that what is likely to happen is that the process is probably going to be a shorter one than what we’ve seen before.

She added: “I do think the party as well as they’ve looked at what happened in terms of that leadership campaign there were elements of that clear elements of that that they didn’t like and and many people do but Certainly the day up has been a party that has always done as business behind closed doors I suspect that that will continue.” 

What happens if the DUP choose Donaldson?

first-and-deputy-first-minister-nomination Donaldson on his way into the DUP meeting last night. Source: PA

One of the potential headaches this would cause is that Donaldson is an MP in the House of Commons and is not an MLA in the Stormont Assembly. 

For one thing, this would mean he could not become First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. 

Donaldson could step down as an MP and be co-opted into the Assembly at the expense of another DUP MLA who steps down, but this path is unclear. 

Only on Wednesday it was confirmed that North Down DUP MLA Gordon Dunne is stepping down due ill-health and will be replaced by his son, so this potential path is gone for Donaldson.

However, being co-opted into Stormont is perhaps not something he would not want anyway. 

During the May leadership contest he said that he “intends to fight the next Assembly  election” and that he would “take on the role of First Minister”. 

This suggests that if he becomeS DUP leader he may wait until he has a chance to run in the Assembly elections, due in May 2022 at the latest. 

Such is the disarray within the party right now it would not relish the prospect of its new leader having to run in an unsafe seat, but if an immediate election was avoided it could give the party time to regroup.  

In the meantime though the DUP needs to fill the role of First Minister to avoid an election, so if Donaldson were to become leader he could nominate someone or else leave Paul Givan in place. 

Which brings us to the next question… 

What happens to the new First Minister?

first-and-deputy-first-minister-nomination Paul Givan during his nomination yesterday. Source: PA Images

Poots basically described Paul Givan as his protegé as he nominated him for the role of First Minister yesterday, saying he had been a mentor to him since Givan first entered his office over 20 years ago. 

Givan is therefore inextricably linked to the disaster that was Poots’ leadership, but whether this means his position is doomed is to be decided. 

There are risks inherent in the DUP forcing him aside in that if they were to fail to come up with a consensus alternative it could cause even more division in the already fractured party. 

Also, if Givan was to step down as First Minister this would also mean that Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill would also be removed from her post, such is the interconnected nature of their joint position within the executive. 

From the DUP’s point of view, this could potentially provide Sinn Féin with an opportunity to seek further commitments as the price of avoiding an election. 

Sinn Féin is in a much more stable place than the DUP and it would perhaps welcome an election while the DUP would not.

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first-and-deputy-first-minister-nomination Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. Source: PA Images

This leverage is something that benefitted Sinn Féin in securing its agreement from the British government that it would legislate for cultural issues including the Irish language at Westminster, but this leverage does not disappear with Poots’ departure. 

It is for these reasons that if Donaldson were to become leader Givan may stay on as First Minister. It may also be seen as a sort of olive branch to Poots’ allies in the party, but whether this happens remains to be seen. 

What could this mean for instability and the Northern Ireland Protocol?

After Sinn Féin managed to use its position to secure commitments around the Irish language from the British government, some in the DUP may feel that fear of the Executive collapsing may force the British government into taking a tougher line on the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

Unionist politicians have been urging the British government to invoke Article 16 of Northern Ireland Protocol to essentially override it

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously threatened to do so but has stepped back, with the current so-called ‘sausage war’ the main front in the UK’s attempts at undermining the Protocol without collapsing it.  

DUP and other unionist parties want the British government to go further but to do so would risk collapsing the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and EU. 

Speaking this morning, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney expressed concern that should an election be the outcome from the last 24 hours there is a risk it would be “a referendum on the Protocol”. 

“The election would be based on polarisation and division as opposed to focusing on policy change and governance and dealing with the problems in Northern Ireland. I think we have enough challenges right now without a very divisive polarising election.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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