Yesterday (3 February) the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) took the decision to withdraw Paul Givan from his role as First Minister of Northern Ireland. Why did this happen and what does it mean? Feargal Cochrane, an Emeritus Professor of International Conflict Analysis at the University’s School of Politics and International Relations, said:
‘The reason the DUP gave for its decision to walk away from Stormont was based on the Northern Ireland Protocol and its economic and political impact on Northern Ireland. However, the Protocol was the excuse rather than the reason for yesterday’s events.
‘The DUP has been losing support in opinion polls in recent months to the more radical Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party. It is facing an Assembly Election in May where it is likely to be replaced as the largest party by Sinn Fein. This would result in the DUP being forced to take up the deputy First Minister position in partnership with a Sinn Fein First Minister which would be very unpopular with its voters. It would have to do this in a context where the protocol continues to place an economic border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Therefore, Paul Givan’s resignation is an attempt to recoup support that has been lost to the TUV in advance of the Assembly election.
‘So, what next? As the roles of First Minister and deputy First Minister are equal and conjoined posts Givan’s resignation means that Michelle O’Neill also has to step down as deputy First Minister and the Northern Ireland Executive can no longer meet. However, the devolved institutions (aside from the Executive) will continue in a hybrid form with ministers in their posts and the Assembly remaining in session for at least the next six weeks and possibly longer. This will allow limited government to take place where policies are already established but will not allow new legislation or big spending decisions to be taken.
‘The DUP and Sinn Fein are seeking to bring the Assembly election forward from May to March which will be a decision for Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. Whether this happens or not, the real problems will start after that election as it is difficult to see devolved government being restored to Northern Ireland in the short term. Sinn Fein are likely to be the largest party and nationalists are now questioning the appetite of unionists for partnership government. There is a firm belief now that unionists only want devolved government if they can dominate it. The DUP (or the Ulster Unionist Party) will find it very difficult to return to government in the role of deputy First Minister, especially if the NI Protocol remains substantively unaltered –which seems likely.
‘It is doubtful if devolved government will return quickly therefore regardless of when an Assembly election is held and a sustained period of direct rule from Westminster now seems likely. That will be a tragedy in the short term for Northern Ireland but is likely to damage unionist interests most dramatically and strengthen the growing momentum for constitutional change on the island.’
Professor Feargal Cochrane is an Emeritus Professor of International Conflict Analysis in the University of Kent’s School of Politics and International Relations. He is an expert on political conflict in Northern Ireland and on civil society initiatives, especially non-governmental organisations and their capacity to assist conflict prevention and conflict transformation within divided societies.
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