Edwin Poots is to stand down as DUP leader less than five weeks after being elected to the post.
He was officially ratified as leader less than three weeks ago, on May 28th.
Earlier on Thursday, Mr Poots faced an internal party revolt after he nominated Paul Givan as the North’s First Minister despite the opposition of a sizeable majority of MLAs, MPs, party officers and peers present at a DUP meeting.
Just had a lovely lunch @DeanesAtQueens with a good friend. It’s great hospitality is open again- Hope everyone is having a great day this lovely sunny afternoon. #ProudofNI— Arlene Foster #WeWillMeetAgain (@ArleneFosterUK) June 17, 2021
Senior party figures then gathered for a meeting at DUP headquarters in Belfast, amid anger in the party that Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis had announced early on Thursday morning that a compromise had been reached over the introduction of Irish language legislation.
This was viewed as a concession to Sinn Féin by many within the DUP.
In a statement issued shortly after 9pm following the meeting of party officials, Mr Poots, who is the North's Minister for Agriculture, said he had “asked the Party Chairman to commence an electoral process within the Party to allow for a new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party to be elected.
“The Party has asked me to remain in post until my successor is elected.
“This has been a difficult period for the Party and the country and I have conveyed to the Chairman my determination to do everything I can to ensure both Unionism and Northern Ireland is able to move forward to a stronger place,” he said.
Late on Thursday night, it was confirmed that the North South Ministerial Council, due to take place in Armagh, had been postponed “at the request of the Northern side,” according to the Government press office in Dublin.
Earlier, on the way into the meeting in the party’s Dundela Avenue premises, DUP chairman Lord Morrow, asked if there should be a vote of no confidence in Mr Poots, had told reporters: “You’ll have to wait to see.”
In response to questions from reporters the defeated DUP leadership candidate, Jeffrey Donaldson, had replied: “What a lovely day.”
This echoed an earlier comment by ousted DUP leader Arlene Foster, who tweeted on Thursday afternoon that she had “just had a lovely lunch with a good friend” at Deanes At Queens restaurant in Belfast’s university quarter.
“It’s great hospitality is open again- Hope everyone is having a great day this lovely sunny afternoon. #ProudofNI,” Mrs Foster said.
Meanwhile, Mr Givan and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill had already taken up their positions as the first and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.
They took the pledge of office at a special sitting of the North’s Assembly on Thursday.
Mr Givan was nominated by Mr Poots, who said he was “proud” to nominate the Lagan Valley MLA “not with a pre-condition from Sinn Féin, but with a brand of confident unionism capable of recognising wins and even recognising those things that do not do us demonstrable harm”.
Ms O’Neill was renominated as deputy first minister by Sinn Féin’s nominating officer, Minister for Finance Conor Murphy.
The then DUP leader went ahead with Mr Givan’s nomination despite the opposition of a large majority of party representatives at a meeting on Thursday morning.
It is understood there were heated exchanges and a significant majority voted against the nomination going ahead in a ballot which was held after Mr Poots and Mr Givan had left to take part in the nomination process in the Assembly chamber.
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”.
Asked if he had confidence in Mr Poots as DUP leader, 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”.
Mr Lewis announced early on Thursday morning that a compromise had been reached over the introduction of Irish language legislation.
Mr Lewis said that if the Executive has not progressed the legislation by the end of September, it will be introduced in the UK parliament in Westminster in October.
Following the announcement, Sinn Féin said it would proceed with the renomination of Ms O’Neill as deputy first minister, while Mr Poots said he intended to nominate Mr Givan as first minister “at the earliest opportunity”.
However, in a leaked email that was sent to Mr Poots shortly before 10am on Thursday, senior DUP figures expressed their concern at the development and requested an urgent meeting “to explain the basis of your agreement with the Secretary of State and Sinn Féin before any further steps are taken in this process, including the nomination of a first minister”.
It was signed by seven of the DUP’s eight MPs and a number of other senior party members including Lord Morrow. The only MP who did not sign the letter was Mr Poots’s close ally, the North Antrim MP Ian Paisley jr.
‘Gun held to my head’
The post-midnight announcement by the British government committing to pass the stalled laws at Westminster in the autumn if they are not moved at the Stormont Assembly in the interim was enough to convince Sinn Féin to drop its threat not to nominate a deputy first minister as joint head of the devolved executive.
The development came after a night of intensive talks involving Mr Lewis and DUP and Sinn Féin delegations in Belfast on he legislation, which includes the creation of Irish and Ulster Scots commissioners and the establishment of an Office for Identity and Cultural Expression, is an unfulfilled commitment within the 2020 New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal.
Addressing the media outside Stormont House close to 1am, Mr Lewis said both parties had agreed to reconstitute the Executive by nominating to the positions of first and deputy first ministers.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster on Thursday morning, Mr Poots said he believed the legislation should have been brought forward at Stormont.
“That was the line we took with Sinn Féin and the line we took with the Secretary of State,” he said.
“At all times I indicated that the agreement was made in New Decade, New Approach was something we were committed to and something we were prepared to work to and were going to work through. What I wasn’t prepared to do was to have a gun held to my head in terms of the timings of that.”
He would not confirm if the DUP would support the introduction of legislation ahead of the British government’s commitment to step in in the autumn, saying that “we’re not going to be pushed in terms of making a decision which goes ahead of other commitments within in NDNA.
“We have all of the commitments in NDNA to be fulfilled and that includes the military covenant, and we’re hoping that we can get that resolved within the autumn time,” he said. “We’re not cherry picking one thing out and saying this has to happen, or else.”
The stand-off between the two parties over the language issue had been threatening the future of the fragile institutions in Belfast.
The issue came to a head this week as a result of the process required to reconstitute the Executive following the resignation of Mrs Foster as first minister.
The joint nature of the office Mrs Foster shared with Ms O’Neill meant that her departure automatically triggered the removal of the Sinn Féin minister from her position — as one cannot hold post without the other.
In order to form a functioning executive, and avert a snap Assembly election, both roles have to be filled by a deadline of this coming Monday at 1pm.
Amid the dispute, earlier this week Sinn Féin asked the UK government to step in and move the legislation at Westminster instead. The DUP had warned Mr Lewis against such a step, characterising it as an overreach into devolution.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said her party 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.”
Welcoming the move, Ms McDonald said Mr Lewis’s intervention was the “only viable way” to break the deadlock. She confirmed the party would renominate Ms O’Neill.
“This matter of language rights has been a long running saga,” she told a post-1am press conference on the Stormont estate. “For a very long time, the DUP has sought to frustrate these rights. That is most unfortunate, it’s also unacceptable. And tonight we have broken through that logjam of DUP obstructionism.
“This isn’t just significant for Irish speakers, this is significant for all of society, because of course power-sharing is based fundamentally on inclusion, on recognition and on respect.” – Additional reporting: PA