Poots considers new ministers, leading to fears of fresh political crisis

If Foster were to resign as First Minister, Michelle O’Neill would no longer hold office

DUP leader Edwin Poots. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

DUP leader Edwin Poots. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

The new DUP leader Edwin Poots could announce his ministerial team as early as Tuesday, in a move that may trigger a crisis at Stormont.

There has been speculation that his constituency colleague, the Lagan Valley MLA and former minister for communities Paul Givan, is the most likely candidate for the post of first minister.

North Antrim MLA and former minister Mervyn Storey has also been linked to the post, with the party’s new deputy leader, Paula Bradley, and former minister Michelle McIlveen also believed to be under consideration for ministerial office.

The DUP holds four ministerial portfolios in the Stormont Assembly – agriculture, education, economy and first minister – as well as one of two junior minister positions in the Executive Office.

Mr Poots has said he will stay on as Minister for Agriculture but will not take up the post of first minister.

The Lagan Valley MLA officially became the party leader last week following an acrimonious meeting to ratify his selection.

According to a DUP source, Mr Poots is considering some of the defeated leadership candidate Jeffrey Donaldson’s supporters for new roles within the party in order to heal divisions.

Possible defections

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said on Monday that more than five DUP councillors and a number of the party’s activists had spoken to him about joining the UUP.

“Some of them are quite impressive councillors and they could well find themselves, if they wanted to, into the Ulster Unionist Party,” he said.

Alliance and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) have also said they have received a number of membership inquiries from DUP members.

As DUP leader, Mr Poots has pledged to bring “generational change” and “freshness” to the party, which would be reflected in the allocation of ministerial portfolios and committee positions.

However, former DUP leader Arlene Foster indicated on Friday that she would be stepping down immediately if Mr Poots nominated an alternative ministerial team.

She had previously said she would stay on as First Minister until the end of June.

“If Edwin decides that he wants to change that team, I will have to go as well because I can’t stay with a new ministerial team of which I have no authority, and that would be wrong,” she told reporters on Friday.

This could potentially trigger a crisis at Stormont as, under powersharing rules, Ms Foster’s resignation would mean Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, of Sinn Féin, would also cease to hold office and each party would be required to nominate a candidate to fill the position within seven days or an election would have to be held.

Sinn Féin has repeatedly warned that the new first minister must deliver on commitments to deliver Irish-language legislation, which were signed up to by all parties in the New Decade, New Approach deal that restored Stormont in 2020.

Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey, of Sinn Féin, on Sunday refused to be drawn on whether the party was considering refusing to nominate a deputy first minister if they did not receive assurances over the legislation.

“Edwin Poots has previously said that he is a man of his word. He said that he is here to implement the New Decade, New Approach agreement, and I would see that he wants to implement that in all of its parts,” she told the BBC.

Risk of collapse

However, Mr Beattie warned on Monday that the potential collapse of the Assembly was a “real threat”.

He said the nominations could either be “seamless ... and I hope that’s the case ... or we could see Sinn Féin refusing to nominate a deputy first minister until they get some concessions, and that could lead to the collapse of Stormont once again, and that concerns me greatly”.

“As far as I know, Edwin Poots has said he will implement everything that is in New Decade, New Approach, so I’m slightly unsure why anybody feels the need to collapse it.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also warned against collapsing the Assembly, saying that people should “learn lessons that collapsing the Assembly last time didn’t deliver anything” and “threatening to bring down the Assembly was, frankly, stupid when we have waiting lists that would make a third-world country embarrassed”.

“Of course, we need to resolve the issue around the Irish language, that needs done, the DUP need to live up to their commitments, but there are lots of commitments in the New Decade, New Approach and they all need to be delivered upon,” he said.