The DUP’s Paul Givan has resigned as First Minister of the north of Ireland with effect from midnight tonight, putting a question mark over a scheduled election in which his party was expected to poll badly.
Styled as a protest against the Irish protocol of Brexit, it follows a failed attempt by fellow DUP Minister Edwin Poots to order a halt to Brexit-related agri-food checks at the North’s ports.
Givan made the announcement this afternoon following a party meeting at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in south Belfast. Bringing an end to the North’s shortest reign of a First Minister, at 231 days, he thanked colleagues “for giving me this opportunity”.
Speaking to the media following the resignation announcement, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson claimed that the DUP’s actions had “focused minds” and had forced the EU back to the negotiating table.
“It’s as if unionists are to be seen and not heard,” he said. “We have had enough.”
The move has also automatically removed Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill from office and is set to collapse the North’s power-sharing institutions, at least temporarily. An election to the Stormont Assembly had been due to be held on May 5.
Both Givan’s resignation and Poots’s protocol ‘orders’ were well-signalled and came after months of DUP threats and scene-setting, but without generating significant public interest.
The unfolding of the strategy of disruption began on Wednesday evening, when Poots, Stormont’s Agriculture Minister, demanded civil servants at ports halt food and other safety checks, but without success. Customs procedures on Irish Sea trade were also unaffected, but the European Commission still criticised Poots for creating “further uncertainty and unpredictability for businesses and citizens”.
Givan’s resignation has now triggered a seven-day countdown for the DUP and Sinn Féin to agree nominations to the post or the Executive cannot function, and it will fall to the British government to call an election.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has said that in the absence of a functioning Stormont Executive, an early election must be called. Speaking at a press conference in Belfast, she slammed the First Minister’s resignation announcement as “narrow and self-serving”.
“We cannot stagger on in the months ahead without a functioning Executive and Sinn Féin will not facilitiate this,” she said. “So in the absence of a functioning Executive, an early election must be called and the people must have their say.”
The SDLP agreed that the DUP’s moves were designed to help its poll ratings. “It’s a stunt by the DUP to find some political momentum following a series of bad polls because of the mess they’ve made of Brexit,” party MP Claire Hanna said.
The move to collapse of the institutions was a “total betrayal of the people”, party leader Colum Eastwood added.
“I frankly think people have had enough of 15 years of in and out of government, of parties only focused on themselves and not focused on delivering for the people,” he said.
Givan’s resignation was described as “another manufactured crisis” by rival Ulster Unionist Party leader, Doug Beattie, who said it will only increase suffering for people in the north of Ireland and would have no impact on the protocol.
The failure of the British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis or Foreign Officer Liz Truss to challenge the DUP’s actions, as well their provocative visit with hardline unionists on the Shankill Road last week, points to a Johnson regime that is now openly working with the largest unionist party to defend its electoral position.
The strategy, dubbed ‘Operation Save Little Dog’, has evolved in sync with Johnson’s equally desperate hold on power in Downing Street. Barring an internal meltdown of either the DUP or of the Tory government, any future Assembly election date is set to be timed to provide the greatest potential benefit to Donaldson, something which is sure to further anger the DUP’s opponents.
But as a result of the high bar the DUP has placed for itself, the danger for the Stormont institutions is that it may not take place for months and years. Donaldson has insisted that he cannot work alongside a Sinn Féin First Minister, an outcome that still appears unavoidable, regardless of any resurgance in support for his party.