The DUP appears to be in internal disarray after a significant majority of its elected representatives opposed the new party leader’s decision to nominate a Stormont First Minister in Northern Ireland.
A sizeable majority of MLAs and MPs voted against Edwin Poots’ decision to reconstitute the powersharing Executive with Sinn Féin in a bruising internal meeting just minutes before the process for nominating Stormont’s leaders began downstairs in the chamber of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The PA news agency understands that Mr Poots and his choice of First Minister, Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan, had left the room to head for the chamber just before the vote was taken.
The new DUP leader, who succeeded the ousted Arlene Foster last month, is now facing questions about his own leadership future after he proceeded with the nomination despite the internal opposition.
One senior party source at the meeting, which happened in the members’ dining room, described the atmosphere to PA.
“Dreadful. Utterly dreadful. Never experienced the like of it,” said the source.
After leaving the meeting, Mr Poots nominated Mr Givan as First Minister while Sinn Féin renominated Michelle O’Neill as deputy First Minister at a specially convened Assembly sitting.
Earlier on Thursday morning, several DUP MPs and peers sent an urgent email to Mr Poots urging him to hold off nominating Mr Givan until he explained his decision to reassemble the Executive after Sinn Féin secured its key ask on Irish language laws.
DUP party officers are due to meet later on Thursday, as is the newly reconstituted Stormont Executive.
A post-midnight announcement by the UK 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 Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and DUP and Sinn Féin delegations in Belfast.
Many DUP politicians had warned against UK government intervention on devolved issues and are furious that Mr Poots was still prepared to enter a new coalition on that basis.
The stand-off between the Executive’s two main parties over the thorny language issue has 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 deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill meant her departure automatically triggered the removal of Ms O’Neill from her position – as one cannot hold post without the other.
While Mr Poots has vowed to implement all outstanding aspects of the 2020 New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal that restored powersharing, he has declined to give Sinn Féin a specific assurance that he will move on the language element of the NDNA deal in the current Assembly mandate, a key demand of the party.
Amid the dispute, earlier this week Sinn Féin asked the UK government to step in and move the legislation at Westminster instead. DUP figures had warned Mr Lewis against such a step, characterising it as an overreach into devolution.
However, in the early hours of Thursday, the Secretary of State announced that the UK government would table the language legislation at Westminster in October if Stormont had failed to do so by the end of September.
Mr Poots later voiced opposition to legislating on the issue at Westminster but said he would still proceed with nominating Mr Givan as First Minister.
The email subsequently sent to Mr Poots, a copy of which has been seen by PA, was signed by defeated leadership candidate Jeffrey Donaldson, party chairman Maurice Morrow, senior MPs Sammy Wilson, Gregory Campbell and Gavin Robinson, former deputy leader Nigel Dodds and a number of other senior members.
In total seven of the DUP’s eight MPs signed the email, with Ian Paisley being the exception. The party’s five peers also signed it.
Many of those who signed the email would have supported Mr Donaldson in his leadership bid, though some, like MP Paul Girvan, supported Mr Poots’s candidacy.
Accepting Mr Poots’ nomination and taking the pledge of office during the special Assembly sitting, Mr Givan thanked his party leader for having “confidence in me”.
He told the Assembly he shares the same “drive and determination” to serve the people of Northern Ireland as the party leaders before him.
He added: “There is much goodwill from the public for this place to work.
The British Govt has tonight agreed to legislate for Acht Gaeilge. This is the only way to break the cycle of DUP obstruction of rights. Sinn Féin will nominate @moneillsf as Deputy First Minister. We have important work ahead.
— Mary Lou McDonald (@MaryLouMcDonald) June 16, 2021
“We must recognise there is more in common than separates us. Northern Ireland is a special place.”
After accepting her nomination during Thursday’s Assembly sitting, Ms O’Neill said: “We have monumental challenges ahead which require the same unity of purpose, the same urgency as we tackle the totally unacceptable hospital waiting lists which have left people crucified in pain and without hope.
“We must immediately set about addressing this issue together. We must mount a case to secure the funding from the British government to rebuild and transform our incredible public health service.
“Our people, and the heroic health service workers we are blessed with, deserve nothing less. Nothing less.”