Amid the never-ending string of crises for the government in Westminster, you could be forgiven for missing the news that a leader of one of the devolved nations has resigned. But Paul Givan, First Minister of Northern Ireland, did exactly that last week having only been appointed eight months ago. The move collapsed the NI Executive, removing both the First and Deputy First Ministers at a stroke. While the Executive can no longer meet to make the substantive decisions of government, following recent changes in law at Westminster, the devolved institutions can limp on for a few more months but with severe limitations on what it can do for the people of Northern Ireland.
You could very legitimately ask what is the DUP’s game here? Withdrawing from government and leaving Stormont in a state of at least partial paralysis is not conducive to a healthy union already under strain from Northern Ireland’s new trading relationship with Great Britain. Nor is it constructive for the people of Northern Ireland as the country emerges from the pandemic and into its own cost of living crisis. Indeed the move means that a multi-year budget for Stormont departments cannot be agreed. So what does the DUP have to gain from this move?
As with all things in NI, it is political and it is tribal. Of course the DUP is intrinsically opposed to the NI Protocol and anything that threatens the place in the Union. But we cannot ignore that Northern Ireland goes to the polls on 5 May, and the conventional wisdom is that Sinn Fein will for the first time become the largest party at Stormont. DUP Leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson therefore knows that he had to take significant steps to sure up his base amid threats from the TUV and the UPP. Sir Jeffery has been threatening to collapse the institutions ‘within weeks’ over the NI protocol, ever since he was elected the DUP’s third leader in a matter of weeks back in June. He risked becoming the boy who cried wolf and being seen as soft on the protocol by his own supporters. His hope is that this move, alongside that of his predecessor and current Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, will be enough to convince unionists that he is the last best hope to save the Union.
The irony is that the resignation actually led to Sinn Fein and the DUP singing off the same hymn sheet, however briefly, as both called on the Secretary of State to call for an early election. Sinn Fein cannot be too disappointed by First Minister’s resignation and will also see a significant upside as we enter election season. Sinn Fein can paint the DUP as the intransigent party that stands in the way of progress on a budget, a long overdue apology to victims of historical abuse, and the reversal of unpopular Covid restrictions, which at present cannot be rolled back without the Executive.
Mr Givan’s resignation has not quite rung the starting bell for an election campaign that will undoubtedly be a bruising, gloves-off affair. In truth it has been going for months already, because this is an election that has so much at stake for Northern Ireland. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the coming months could shape the future of power sharing. Should Sinn Fein be returned as the largest party and Michelle O’Neill the First Minister in waiting (in doing so becoming the first Nationalist to hold the role), what will the DUP do then? Although equal positions, could the DUP accept being a Deputy to Sinn Fein? Sir Jeffery has already stated that it would be ‘difficult’ for the DUP to return to the Executive after the election if the Protocol remains.
This therefore goes far beyond what happens to decision making over the coming months but right to the heart of devolution in Northern Ireland. Long gone is the optimism of New Decade New Approach, and not for the first time a dark cloud hangs over Stormont and the future of devolution.