Unionism in Northern Ireland is in turmoil with elected members of the dominant Democratic Unionist Party in open warfare over the election of its new leader Edwin Poots. With the name of the expected new First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly due to be announced in the coming days, subsequent events could see the collapse of the regional parliament and with it, the expected ascent of the pro-Irish unity Party Sinn Féin to become the largest political party in the province, as Ken Murray reports from Dublin.
On 22 June, prominent pro-British unionists will gather at Belfast City Hall for an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the first opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament by King George V.
The institution, was once described by former NI Prime Minister James Craig as being “a protestant parliament for a protestant people” while the sovereign parliament in Dublin served the wishes of the mainly catholic community in the South following the British division of Ireland in 1921.
For 100 years, unionists from the protestant community have viewed Northern Ireland as being as ‘British as Finchley’, the one-time constituency of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
However, turmoil within unionist ranks has meant that what should be a day of glorious celebration on June 22nd to mark the creation of Northern Ireland, is shaping up to be anything but.
The pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, which currently has the largest number of seats in the Assembly, is in open warfare.
A recent rebellion by hard-line elected DUP members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to overthrow leader Arlene Foster saw ultra-conservative Edwin Poots win over Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP by just two votes, with just under half of the parliamentary Party feeling the heave was foolish and unnecessary.
A senior DUP source told The Belfast News Letter paper “that individuals across the Party were considering resignation with some likely to go to the [rival] Ulster Unionist Party.”
At a ratification conference of Party members in a Belfast Hotel last week, a number of senior members in the Party including Lord Nigel Dodds, his wife Diane and MPs, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Gavin Robinson and Gregory Campbell, walked out just as Poots took to the microphone to deliver his victory speech, itself a reflection of the bitterness in the Party.
Arlene Foster, who many observers say has been treated in appalling fashion, is being clearly scapegoated by one-time party friends and colleagues.
As they see it, she failed to prevent the introduction of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated by London with Brussels as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
The Protocol sees goods exported from GB to NI checked at ports in Belfast and Larne thus creating a notional border in the Irish Sea which, as unionists see it, now aligns Northern Ireland closer to Dublin and further away from London.
The unfortunate Mrs. Foster is the victim of a deal which Boris Johnson told DUP members would never happen but was subsequently reneged on by him!
Following the heave against Mrs. Foster, she had planned to step down as NI First Minister in dignified fashion at the end of June but the ruthless nature of her removal suggests she will be gone in the coming days.
Speaking to Chris Mason on the BBC Newscast podcast about her humiliating defenestration she said, “……..politics is brutal but even by the DUP standards, it was pretty brutal.
“If Edwin decides that he wants to change that team, I will have to go as well because I can’t stay with a new ministerial team of which I have no authority, and that would be wrong.”
Poots, who in 2012 as health minister imposed a controversial ban on gay men donating blood and is on record as saying that the earth is only 6,000 years old and has, bizarrely, ruled out appointing himself as First Minister!
Favourite to take the role is Poots loyalist 39-year old Paul Givan. However, if Givan is nominated as First Minister for Northern Ireland, a series of knock-on events could see Edwin Poots reign be a short-lived one!
Under the rules, the appointment of a new Northern Ireland First Minister would also have to see the election of a deputy First Minister from the opposing Irish nationalist side. In this case, that would see the existing holder of the Office, Michelle O’Neill, nominated again by the pro-Irish unity party Sinn Féin.
As it is, there is increasing frustration and growing anger within Sinn Fein over the ongoing delays and failure of Poots’ DUP to approve the introduction of the contentious Irish Language Act.
Granting such a move, as many unionists see it, would result in Northern Ireland becoming more ‘Irish’ and less British with the language being taught in protestant schools and ultimately becoming more visible on road signage and State institution logo designs!
Should Sinn Féin insist as part of a deal to support Givan for the First Minister position that a deadline date must be imposed to introduce the Act in to the Assembly and the DUP refuse, the NI regional parliament is likely to collapse followed by an expected game-changing election!
In 2016, Paul Givan, then a Communities Minister, laid down a marker as to where he stands on the language when he cut funding for a project that would have seen school children attend an Irish-speaking district in the Republic of Ireland, a sectarian decision that contributed to the collapse of the Assembly in 2017.
This emerging scenario leaves the DUP in something of a political snooker! The Party, which has shown no enthusiasm for the Irish Language Act, currently has 28 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly with Sinn Féin on 27.
It is an almost certainty that Sinn Féin will emerge as the largest Party for the first time since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 following the next Assembly election due to changing demographics.
Any loss of power or reduction in DUP seats would then see a move from the Jeffrey Donaldson wing of the Party to remove Poots thus increasing division within its ranks even more so!
Unionism in Northern Ireland is in deep trouble, a scenario which, 100 years on from creating the “the protestant parliament for the protestant people” currently gives it little to celebrate!
According to Arlene Foster in an interview with The Financial Times, “I think we are regressing and becoming more narrow,” she said.
“It’s quite nasty, frankly. If the union is to succeed, we need to be a bigger tent . . . The plea I would make to the party is that, if they want to secure the union, then they have to have a wide vision for the union.”
In the meantime, SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon is expected to up the pressure in the coming months for an independence referendum in Scotland, the outcome of which could put Northern Ireland’s position within the UK in to even further peril.