The North of Ireland has a new First Minister, although with no increase in political stability, after DUP leader Edwin Poots defied his own party to go ahead with nominating colleague Paul Givan as First Minister this afternoon.
After a late night deal involving the British government, the offices of First and Deputy First Minister were filled today ahead of a Monday deadline, staving off a crisis for the Stormont institutions.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill has resumed her role as Deputy First Minister alongside Givan (pictured, right).
However, a new British commitment to finally act on the Irish language, intended to ease the passage of the nominations, has proved too much to bear for a majority of DUP members of the Assembly.
The hardline unionists are convinced the use of Ireland’s native language is a tactic in a ‘cultural war’ intended to undermine their sense of Britishness.
In theory, the deal will see the London government finally legislate for the rights of Gaelic speakers at Westminster by October, if the Stormont Assembly fails to do so.
Barring a significant deception by British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis, it should finally deliver on a key element of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, which first paved the way for the DUP to share power with Sinn Fein. It will include commitments for Gaelic speakers, the Ulster-Scots language, and cultural issues generally.
But the heralded breakthrough was opposed this morning by a group of Poots’s own hardline supporters, including DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who has now refused to say if has confidence in his new leader – despite supporting him in a leadership challenge just three weeks ago.
Combined with those still aligned with the deposed former DUP leader Arlene Foster, there was a clear majority this morning within the DUP for delaying the nominations and re-escalating the crisis.
But in a dramatic turn of events this afternoon, Poots and Givan refused to stall the process and walked out of a meeting of DUP Assembly members, and went on to formally complete the nomination process (pictued, left).
Apparently incensed, the meeting of DUP Assembly members voted to oppose the nominations by an 80% majority, creating a potential schism within the troubled organisation.
One of those present at the internal meeting described the atmosphere as, “dreadful. Utterly dreadful. Never experienced the like of it.” Another described it as a “total shambles”.
The DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who was at the meeting, told the BBC “the feelings of the party were very very clear, it wasn’t a marginal vote, it was a very clear view that was expressed, namely that we should not be facilitating the undermining of the assembly and democracy in Northern Ireland.”
Another crisis meeting of the DUP is being held this afternoon, at which Poots could potentially face a no confidence motion and be removed from his post.
Asked if he had confidence in Poots as DUP leader today, Mr Wilson said “my view is that any leader, if they want to have confidence, should bring people along with them, and a leader who acts without the support of even a marginal majority has to live with the consequences of that.”
The embattled new DUP leader had generated controversy last week by claiming there would be loyalist street violence if the nominations did not go ahead as planned.
But alleged loyalist anger over the Irish language legislation is an argument now being used by those in the DUP opposing him.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said her party had discussed with the British government measures to ensure the DUP cannot frustrate the Irish language legislation going through.
“We will have to be vigilant on this matter and it is something we have discussed with the British government, to ensure that there cannot be any blocking or mechanisms deployed by the DUP at the 11th hour,” she said.
“I am satisfied, as the legislation is drafted, that we will avert any possibility of that.”
After a campaign which has continued for generations, Irish language activists have welcomed the new commitment by London as “a historic staging post”, but remain unconvinced of the bona fides of the Tory government.
Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, spokesperson for lobby group An Dream Dearg [The Red Group] said that for the first time since 2006, the British government had publicly committed to enact the legislation against the veto of political unionism.
“It is testament to the commitment and perseverance of the Irish language community which has seen schools, young people, parents and families take to the streets for many years in pursuit of equality and human rights,” he said.
“This announcement is a direct result of that activism and grass-roots organising and we commend our community for their diligence and dedication.
“The Dream Dearg campaign, from then until now, has proved that ordinary people can make change happen from below. We are proud to have played a positive role in enabling civil society to reclaim its democratic voice in holding those with power and responsibility to account.
“However, the Irish language community rightly have grave concerns around the British governments long-standing failures to honour agreements and rights.
“The British government have actively and intentionally suppressed and excluded our native language through centuries of colonisation. This commitment comes 15 years after they committed to introducing an Irish language Act in an internationally binding agreement at St Andrew’s, one they have reneged on ever since.
“Local parties now have an obligation to ensure the British government fulfills this obligation and latest commitment, without any additional delay.”