A second collapse of the leadership of the largest unionist party, in the face of Irish language speakers receiving a commitment that their rights will be protected, marks a further loosening of the grip on northern politics by the DUP’s extremists.
A deal on Thursday involving a vow by the British government to legislate for the rights of Irish speakers had appeared to avert a crisis for the North’s institutions. But it brought a new wave of mayhem after DUP leader Edwin Poots accepted it, without the support of his party’s officers, enabling his colleague Paul Givan to become First Minister.
Poots was effectively fired on Thursday evening by DUP officers, with Givan told he must also go. The party is now scrambling to find a new leader, the third in under a month.
The DUP were told to ‘get their act together’ by Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.
The Deputy First Minister said her partners in government were at a crossroads and faced a choice of continuing to be “rights deniers” or joining the other four Executive parties in delivering a “modern and progressive” agenda.
Speaking to the media in Coalisland, County Tyrone, the Deputy First Minister said she had not spoken to either Givan or Poots since the latter’s dramatic resignation.
She noted that the heave against the previous DUP leader, Arlene Foster, also had its roots in the intolerance of the party on rights issues.
She described the last few days as “tumultuous”, but added she is committed to powersharing and working with other parties. She said the DUP now had a choice to make.
“The choice is to work with the rest of us to deliver on powersharing, to deliver rights or to continue to resist those very rights that obviously seen the ousting of Arlene Foster over gay conversion therapy or Edwin Poots yesterday over language rights,” she said.
Asked about the prospect of an early Assembly election, Ms O’Neill said: “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen next within the DUP, I hope that we are able to continue to share power.
“If we run to the end of the mandate well and good, if there has to be an election before that, then we will fight that election.”
Asked if she had fears that the British government might renege on its pledge to pass Irish language legislation following the DUP upheaval, Ms O’Neill said: “I would very much hold the British government to account on the fact they have made a political commitment this week that they will legislate in the autumn and I certainly will work towards that being the case.
“And I will hold their feet to the fire on that issue.”
The deputy first minister said she remained committed to working with Mr Givan as first minister despite the uncertainty over his future.
“For my part, I remain committed to working with him whilst he is in post and, until the DUP change that nomination, then I have to work with him as joint head of government and I will do that on the basis of respect for the position that he holds,” she said.
Mr Givan has been told by party officers that he will have to resign as Stormont’s leader when a new DUP leader is in place, but he is still to confirm his departure.
When he inevitably steps down, Minister Michelle O’Neill will also be out of office, and there will be seven days before Sinn Fein and the DUP must again renominate a First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
DUP officials said on Friday night said they expected the leadership contest to open at the start of next week, and to close by the end of the week. Jeffrey Donaldson, who lost the party’s leadership election to Mr Poots by 19 votes to 17 last month, is the favourite to win at a second attempt.