Snap election after Poots resignation could be run as ‘referendum’ on protocol – Coveney

DUP leader announces resignation after just 21 days in office following internal revolt

DUP MP Sammy Wilson has said that any intervention by the British government in Norther Ireland politics would not be tolerated in Scotland or Wales, saying "it is no basis to have devolution." Video: PA Media

 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has warned a snap election in the North as a result of the chaos in the Democratic Unionist Party could be run as a “referendum” on the Northern Ireland protocol.

He warned the tensions and difficulties linked to the protocol, and the fallout from Brexit are still present across the North, and said the summer could be very tense as the marching season begins.

“We all have an obligation to calm those tensions, to respond to genuine concerns, to show flexibility and pragmatism in terms of how the protocol is implemented.

“The EU understands that. The EU and British government have an obligation to find a way forward on those things, and the Irish Government is very much involved in trying to do that.”

“The idea that we introduce an election in the middle of all of that, in the short term, which in some ways would be a referendum on the protocol and some of the issues of division we have seen, means that the election would be based on polarisation and division as opposed to focusing on policy change and governance to deal with problems in Northern Ireland,” Mr Coveney told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

He was speaking after Edwin Poots resigned after just three weeks as leader of the DUP after facing an internal revolt in relation to Irish language legislation. Westminster has said it will legislate on the Irish language in the North by October if Stormont does not do so beforehand.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that he does not believe the crisis caused by the sudden resignation of Mr Poots will lead to elections in Northern Ireland.

“In my view, it is not what Northern Ireland requires, given that we are in the middle of a pandemic and there is a real urgency around health services in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“It is very important that we all work collectively on the island towards maintaining stability, and [with] calm heads staying focused on what is important to the people.”

He added: “The Government will work with all parties and with the British government to protect the institutions of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement and to work towards ensuring the continuation of the Assembly and the Executive.”

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said there is a “deep-seated concern” among unionists that things are “out of control”.

“As was explained to me by a very senior person [in the North], there is a deep-seated concern within unionism that things on their side are out of control, that they don’t have friends in Westminster, they don’t have too many friends down here, they have no friends in America, as they see it, that politics isn’t working and they are on the back foot,” he said.

Irish language

Mr Martin expressed confidence that the Irish language legislation which precipitated the leadership crisis would be introduced. He said the legislation had been agreed by all parties and the difficulties surrounded its implementation.

Mr Coveney said Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis “did the right thing” in guaranteeing Irish language legislation would be pushed through Westminster if not passed at Stormont, as it was agreed in the New Decade New Approach deal agreed to restore power-sharing.

The British government has confirmed that it will legislate at Westminster for the Irish language if the Stormont institutions fail to do so by October. Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said the commitment made by Mr Lewis is unaffected by Mr Poot’s resignation as DUP leader on Thursday.

Asked if the prime minister was concerned that the turmoil at the top of the DUP could lead to the collapse of the institutions in Northern Ireland, the spokesman repeated the British government’s commitment to a strong devolved administration at Stormont.

“It’s obviously the case that the leadership of the DUP is a matter for the DUP but as we always do, the Northern Ireland Office and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will continue to work closely with the Executive,” he said.

‘Monumental mistakes’

A former DUP MP and special adviser to Arlene Foster accused Mr Poots of making “monumental mistakes”.

Emma Little Pengelly said he had failed to demonstrate the necessary leadership.

She told BBC NI’s The View: “Edwin was clearly very, very keen to take the leadership, there were many in the party unhappy about the way that it was done.

“However, over the course of the last two weeks we haven’t seen that — for example in terms of North-South relations, the protocol and of course what has happened over the last 24 hours.”

She added: “What has happened over the last 24 hours, last night and into today seem to have been monumental mistakes.”

Mr Poots quit as DUP leader on Thursday night after losing the support of his party less than five weeks after he was elected to replace Mrs Foster.

In a statement Mr Poots 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”. Mr Poots will remain in his post until a successor is elected.

It is not clear what the consequences may be for Paul Givan, his close ally who he nominated as Northern Ireland’s First Minister on Thursday afternoon.

Mr Poots faced an internal revolt after the UK government agreed to legislate on the Irish language .

A number of senior DUP members had asked Mr Poots to withhold nomination of Mr Givan as First Minister until he explained the basis of his agreement with Westminster. However, he had proceeded with Mr Givan’s nomination on Thursday.

At a meeting afterwards, at least 20 of the party’s Assembly members voted against the nomination going ahead. It is understood Mr Poots and Mr Givan were not present for the vote as they had already left to go to the Assembly chamber for the nomination process.

‘Crossroads’

The The Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has urged the DUP to “get their act together” to ensure effective governance at Stormont. On Friday she said her partners in government were at a “crossroads” and faced a choice of continuing to be “rights deniers” or joining the other four executive parties in delivering a “modern and progressive” agenda.

Speaking to the media in Coalisland, Co Tyrone, she said she had not spoken Mr Givan or the outgoing DUP leader since the latter’s dramatic resignation on Thursday night. “I think the issues for the DUP are for the DUP, but where I’m concerned is where it impacts on the day to day governance,” Ms O’Neill said. “That’s where I would have concerns. So I hope that they get to the point where they’re able to resolve their internal issues and we get back to basics and dealing with good powersharing and delivering public services.”

She said the DUP are at a crossroads and they have a choice to make. “The choice is to work with the rest of us to deliver on powersharing, to deliver rights or to continue to resist those very rights that obviously seen the ousting of Arlene Foster over gay conversion therapy or Edwin Poots yesterday over language rights,” she added.

She described the last few days as “tumultuous”, but added she is committed to powersharing and working with other parties.

Asked about the prospect of an early Assembly election, Ms O’Neill said: “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen next within the DUP, I hope that we are able to continue to share power. If we run to the end of the mandate well and good, if there has to be an election before that, then we will fight that election.”

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon expressed concern about the British Government keeping its word on passing stalled legislation and the possibility it could collapse the Executive. - Additional reporting PA