Why has Northern Ireland’s First Minister resigned?

By: Clare Rice

On 3 February, news broke that the resignation of Northern Ireland’s First Minister – the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Paul Givan – was imminent. In Northern Ireland, this did not come as a huge surprise, but the timing of the move raised a number of questions. It was the final jolt in a sequence of events that have set the scene for the impending Assembly election, to be held on 5 May 2022. Due to the joint nature of the office held, Givan’s resignation is also a resignation of the deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, meaning that the Executive branch of Northern Ireland’s institutions has now effectively collapsed.

Under existing arrangements, a countdown of seven days was enacted by this, within which reappointment to these roles would have to happen or an early election would be triggered. However, with legislation completed in Westminster on 7 February (awaiting Royal Assent at the time of writing) that contains a retrospective clause to extend this and prevent a collapse akin to that seen in 2017, this will not be as much of a cliff-edge moment as it has been in the past. Instead, a bigger question rests for the moment with how many bills can be passed into legislation in the remaining time before the election.

Several overlapping and intersecting elements have led to this point. This short explainer outlines some key developments across three areas that led to the First Minister’s resignation and the current situation in Northern Ireland: DUP internal politics; the Brexit agreement’s Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland; and political dynamics within Northern Ireland.  

DUP internal politics

The last twelve months have been difficult for the DUP. In less than three months, the party moved through three leaders: Arlene Foster, Edwin Poots, and the current leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Foster’s resignation came on the back of rumours that a letter of no confidence had been circulated among DUP Assembly members and MPs and that it had gained significant support. She described it as “pretty brutal” at the time. The ensuant leadership challenge between Poots and Donaldson saw the party split, with only two votes separating the pair in the secret election ballot.

Poots took the helm in May 2021. A former Health Minister and the incumbent Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, he is one of the party’s most experienced and well-known politicians. Amid particular interest in Poots regarding his Creationist beliefs and views on matters including abortion, blood donations from gay men and same-sex marriage, it was anticipated that Poots would steer the party on a more socially conservative route. Deputy Leader, Paula Bradley, considered to be at the more liberal end of the party, noted on her election that she would be a “critical friend” to Poots, and it was lauded that this dynamic might help to steer the party on a new course.

However, after 21 days, Poots resigned as leader. His final act in post was to nominate Paul Givan as First Minister, against the wishes of party colleagues. Donaldson ran unopposed for the leadership and took up post in June 2021. The question hanging over Donaldson since has been when he would fulfil his plan to return to the Assembly (triggering a by-election in Lagan Valley for his Westminster seat). Caught in a limbo between Westminster and Stormont with Givan as First Minister, the logistics of Donaldson’s leadership have been challenging.

This came to a head in late January in relation to candidature in the South Down constituency for the upcoming Assembly election. Donaldson (Westminster), Poots and Givan (both Assembly) are all currently representatives for the Lagan Valley constituency, but it is unlikely that the numbers are present for more than two DUP candidates to be returned to the Assembly in May. With all three vying for seats, it was (and remains) uncertain what would happen.

Poots instead opted to put his name forward for consideration in South Down. A safe DUP seat held by friend and ally, Jim Wells, it might have been expected that Poots would be an obvious choice when Wells was deselected. However, a new Assembly candidate, Diane Forsythe, was selected instead, much to the consternation of Poots and Wells, and amid claims that Donaldson had encouraged the move, which have since been denied. As things stand, the current Agriculture Minister is not on a ballot for the 2022 election.

Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland

The following week, the day before Givan’s announcement, Poots announced that he had undertaken to seek legal advice on his powers in relation to the continued operation of border control checks required under the Northern Ireland Protocol for goods moving across from Great Britain. On the basis of this legal advice, it was ordered that these checks were to stop, a move tantamount to a unilateral alteration on the part of the UK of the Protocol’s operation. With the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, stating that this was an internal matter for the Executive, the situation gave rise to a stand-off between civil servants and the Minister. Checks continued following advice from DEFRA, and further, the move was challenged in Belfast’s High Court the next day.

We now know that steps were already being taken at this point towards Givan being asked to resign as First Minister. He had developed a good working relationship with the Sinn Féin deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, against initial odds. Interpretations vary on how, if at all, the resignation dovetails with the timing of what happened in South Down and the call to halt border checks. But what is clear is that the Northern Ireland Protocol is at the forefront of the reasons being given for it, and that the DUP election campaign is primed for movement on the Protocol to be a condition for return to power-sharing thereafter.

The recent attempt to insert a clause to the aforementioned legislation while it was passing through Westminster that would have enabled sitting MPs to also hold a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly – a return of ‘double-jobbing’ – was criticised as a move that would only favour the DUP. This sparked speculation about what might have led to its introduction, and whether it was intended to placate the party in light of the UK-EU negotiations around the Protocol. This has been denied on all sides, but the intrigue and outrage it prompted before its eventual removal has further added to arguments that the UK favours consensus with the EU over achievement of the specific concerns highlighted by the DUP.

This sets devolution in Northern Ireland on a very unsteady footing. Donaldson has been clear that there are conditions to the party’s return to power-sharing after an election. Five areas were highlighted for change, none of which will be easily reconciled. With the Protocol placed at the forefront – a matter which cannot be changed through party talks within Northern Ireland – this places the onus on the UK government to bring about the necessary conditions.

Political dynamics in Northern Ireland

All of this is happening against the backdrop of election results since 2017 and a succession of opinion polls which indicate that the DUP might not achieve enough seats in the Assembly election to return a First Minister.

Givan’s resignation is, in part, a move to establish the DUP’s strength of position on the Protocol and appeal to voters who might have seen the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) as a stronger voice on the matter. To a lesser extent, it is also a means of distancing the party from the working relationship with Sinn Féin that had fostered in the Executive under Givan, absolving it of any criticism that the two were becoming too cosy as a result.

Unionist voters have a crowded field of electoral options. For the DUP, with limited time to steady the party ship after the last year of tumult, a choice exists between working to (re)capture voters more inclined towards the TUV, or to target more socially liberal Unionist votes, which may slip towards the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) or centre-ground parties such as Alliance. By coordinating an election campaign that will focus on the Protocol and the prevention of a Sinn Féin First Minister, the party is making a clear play for TUV votes.

While some support does exist in Northern Ireland for the resignation, it has been criticised across the political spectrum, the exception being the TUV. All eyes are now on the Assembly and the passage of as much legislation as possible before time runs out ahead of the election. There is a reasonable concern that if the DUP will not put forward a First Minister in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol now, it will refuse to do so after the election as well, adding an additional urgency to getting legislation across the finish line.

Conclusion

In short, the First Minister’s resignation is underpinned by a plurality of elements. It is, ultimately, a move to define the DUP under Donaldson’s leadership, and in turn, it is setting the tone for the election ahead. While it is the more pressing concern, it is important to also consider the impact of the election on what might come afterwards. There is no easy way forward.

Directing the First Minister to resign is a big risk for the party to have taken, but it is an even bigger gamble with the future of devolution and power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

Dr Clare Rice is a Research Associate at the University of Liverpool. She is a specialist in power-sharing, the politics of Northern Ireland and Brexit.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.