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Paul Givan's (left) resignation means Michelle O'Neill (right) has been removed as deputy First Minister. Alamy Stock Photo

What happens to Stormont now that Paul Givan has resigned as First Minister?

The resignation comes amid a festering row over the Northern Ireland Protocol and with elections looming.

NORTHERN IRELAND HAS, once again, been pitched into political turmoil following the resignation of Paul Givan as First Minister.

The Democratic Unionist Party politician announced the move today amid DUP efforts to stop checks on agricultural goods entering Northern Ireland – which are taking place as part of post-Brexit checks under the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The 40-year-old is Northern Ireland’s shortest serving first minister, lasting only 231 days in the role.

A key ally of then DUP leader Edwin Poots, Givan was installed in the post last June following the ousting of Arlene Foster.

Poots broke precedent in deciding to not take the first minister job himself and to remain as agriculture minister. The DUP then booted Poots just three weeks later, following an internal party revolt over a deal he struck with Sinn Féin and the British government, which ended a stalemate over Irish language legislation.

Why has Givan resigned now?

Over the course of several months, the DUP has repeatedly threatened to bring down the Stormont institutions in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol – which is one of the key elements in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that legally enabled the UK to exit the European Union.

The protocol means Northern Ireland is effectively still part of the EU’s Single Market for goods. It allows goods to flow freely between Ireland and Northern Ireland and removes the need for checks – which would lead to a hard border on the island of Ireland.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has issued several warnings to the UK government that it must take action over the Protocol, saying it’s not sustainable and doesn’t have the support of the unionist community.

With opinion polls suggesting the DUP is facing a very difficult election in May, opponents have suggested the moves are a last-ditch effort to win back support lost to other parties.  

So, what happens with the Northern Ireland Assembly now?

Because of how Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements are structured, Givan’s resignation automatically removes Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill from the Deputy First Minister position.

The Stormont institutions, created through peace process agreements, can only operate with the participation of both of the two largest parties in Northern Ireland – which is currently a unionist party and a nationalist party.

Therefore, Givan’s resignation effectively paralyses the administration ahead of it rising next month for elections in May.

While other ministers in the administration may remain in their posts, the Executive can’t meet or make any significant decisions as its chair and deputy chair would be absent.

Ministers may be prevented from removing any remaining Covid-19 restrictions in Northern Ireland.

A three-year budget, which is currently out for public consultation, cannot be agreed.

And a planned official state apology to victims of historic institutional abuse – which is scheduled to take place in March – might not happen.

Jeffrey Donaldson said this evening that he would seek to ensure that the planned apology will go ahead.

Donaldson said this evening: “Other DUP ministers will remain in post in advance of the forthcoming election and we will work to ensure, where possible, legislation is able to continue through the Assembly prior to any dissolution date set by the Secretary of State.”


The upcoming election is set to take place on 5 May, meaning the Assembly must rise by the end of March.

The DUP is facing into the ballots with considerable trepidation. A series of disastrous opinion polls suggest it will lose its position as Northern Ireland’s largest party to Sinn Féin, while the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) look set to eat into its dominant share of unionist vote.

The most recent poll, released on 21 January, saw the DUP fall 8% behind Sinn Féin, with the parties on 17% and 25% of the vote respectively. The UUP and the Alliance party each garnered 14% while the TUV had 12%.

Indeed, Sinn Féin’s O’Neill labelled the DUP’s moves on port checks as being political stunts motivated by its poor poll performances.

Before today Stormont was facing a difficult timetable to get the budget passed before the institutions are dissolved at the end of next month.

Last week, Northern Ireland’s Finance Minister Conor Murphy said in a “worst case scenario” of the budget not getting passed, the permanent secretary of his department would ensure funding continued but could only do so at a “limited level”.

“It doesn’t give anywhere near the level of certainty to an awful lot of organisations who depend on it, and given we have a three-year budget to put in place, that is an opportunity to give certainty and allow for planning into the future,” Murphy said.

The Stormont Executive was only reconstituted in 2020 following a lengthy absence, which started with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness resigning over the DUP’s handling of a botched green energy scheme – the so-called “cash for ash” saga.

That impasse lasted three years, with devolution only restored after the main parties signed up to a new accord to resolve a series of long-standing sticking points.

Port checks

Givan’s resignation comes after Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots yesterday issued a unilateral direction instructing officials to stop the agri-food checks.

The UK Government said it will not intervene, saying it’s a matter for the Stormont Executive. Downing Street refuted claims the move is a “stitch-up” between the British Government and the DUP.

Meanwhile, the EU’s chief negotiator in the Protocol talks, and Vice-President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič has said that Poots’ decision to suspend checks on agrifoods coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain was “very unhelpful”.

But he added that the EU understands that this has not happened in practice: 

“According to our information, officials in Northern Ireland continue to carry out checks on goods coming to Northern Ireland. It is essential that this remains the case. The European Commission will closely monitor the developments on the ground.”

It’s also been argued that even if agri-good checks did stop at Northern Ireland’s ports, that businesses would still need to prepare the same paperwork and adhere to the same standards as before.

With reporting from Press Association

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