Poots falls as Stormont stays standing amid latest DUP tensions

Analysis: Party members viewed proposal brokered by London as a capitulation to Sinn Féin

DUP leader Edwin Poots during the nomination of Paul Givan as First Minister, in the Stormont Assembly in Parliament Buildings in Belfast. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

DUP leader Edwin Poots during the nomination of Paul Givan as First Minister, in the Stormont Assembly in Parliament Buildings in Belfast. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

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Just as the North’s last political crisis appeared to have departed the stage, another arrived.

Less than a week after Arlene Foster resigned as first minister, her replacement Edwin Poots quit as DUP leader. It followed a dramatic 24 hours which kept Stormont standing, but saw the largest unionist party engulfed once again in crisis.

This time, Foster got to watch from afar, tweeting that she had “just had a lovely lunch with a good friend ... hope everyone is having a great day this lovely sunny afternoon”.

At a meeting on Thursday morning, a majority of more than 20 DUP Assembly members voted against their party leader. UTV quoted a party source who described the meeting as “bedlam”.

At issue was their request to delay the nomination of Paul Givan as first minister. They were ignored, with Poots and Givan not even present for the ballot, having left the meeting to go to Stormont to nominate him.

A senior DUP source said they were “staggered” and “flabbergasted” that Poots had chosen to go ahead with the nomination when he knew the majority of MLAs, MPs and peers were against it.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” they said.

Less than 12 hours previous it had appeared that the earlier crisis - which threatened to bring down the powersharing Assembly - had been resolved, with Sinn Féin and Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis hosting press conferences in the early hours to confirm that the UK government had pledged to introduce Irish language and other cultural legislation at Westminster if Stormont did not do so by the end of September.

For the DUP’s part, an 8am press release from Poots stated that he intended to nominate Givan “at the earliest opportunity”, but it soon became apparent not everyone in the party agreed.

With an Assembly sitting scheduled for noon, at 10am senior party figures - including seven out of the DUP’s eight MPs - intervened, expressing their concern at the deal and asking Poots to urgently explain himself before proceeding with Givan’s nomination.

The reason for their opposition was clear - the solution brokered by the UK government was viewed as a capitulation to Sinn Féin. There was anger, too, that yet again London had gone over the heads of the local parties on what was supposed to be a devolved matter.

When Poots arrived at the meeting of party officials at the DUP’s headquarters in east Belfast, he faced questions from journalists about a potential motion of no confidence in his leadership.

While he did not respond - instead darting inside - party chairman Lord Morrow said “we’ll have to wait and see” as to what would happen.

More than three hours later, the waiting media - and a handful of spectators gathered across the road - were still waiting.

“You couldn’t make it up,” remarked one man of the day’s events.

It is not yet clear why Poots defied his party - particularly as part of his election pledge had been that he would listen - but what is clear is that with so many against him, he could not hold on to the leadership.

There was only a brief “hello, how are you?” to reporters as he left the meeting after 8pm on Thursday; at nine, news of his resignation dropped.

Poots, who was elected as party leader on May 14th, was gone on June 17th.

There are many questions, not least how the vacancy will be filled. Poots has pledged to remain until his successor has been found.

Will there be another leadership election in this party still reeling from the last one? Will his recently defeated foe, Jeffrey Donaldson, step up?

On his way into that crucial meeting on Thursday afternoon, Donaldson was upbeat as he spoke to reporters.

“What a lovely day,” he said.