Northern Ireland facing political uncertainty over replacing first minister

·3 min read

Northern Ireland is facing a week of political uncertainty amid an intensifying dispute over the process to replace departing First Minister Arlene Foster.

A stand-off between Sinn Fein and the DUP on the vexed issue of Irish language legislation has the potential to derail the powersharing institutions unless resolution is found in the coming days.

When Mrs Foster formally quits as joint head of the devolved executive – a move expected at the start of this week – it sets the clock ticking on a seven-day timeframe within which the DUP must renominate its chosen successor, Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan.

However, the joint nature of the office Mrs Foster shares with deputy First Minister Sinn Fein Michelle O’Neill means Ms O’Neill must also be re-nominated to her role within those seven days.

British Irish Council summit
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster (Liam McBurney/PA)

If one of the parties fails to renominate within the time period a properly functioning executive cannot be formed and the UK Government assumes a legal responsibility to call a snap Assembly election.

On Sunday, a simmering row over the process escalated when Sinn Fein made clear it would only engage in the renomination process if was accompanied by the commencement of legislating for protections for Irish language speakers.

The legislation is one of several outstanding elements of the 2020 deal that resurrected powersharing in Northern Ireland after a three year impasse.

Watch: Paul Givan nominated as Northern Ireland’s new First Minister

Since becoming the new DUP leader, Edwin Poots, who succeeded Mrs Foster after an internal revolt forced her out, has repeatedly said he is committed to implementing all of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement.

Sinn Fein has however demanded specific and immediate action on the Irish language aspect, insisting the legislation must be tabled at Stormont ahead of the summer recess if it is to become law before the end of the current Assembly mandate next spring.

On Sunday, a Sinn Fein source told the PA news agency the party believed Mr Poots was being “disingenuous” in his public comments on NDNA.

Ulster politics
DUP leader Edwin Poots (Mark Marlow/PA)

The source said Sinn Fein assessed that the DUP was “acting in bad faith”.

“We do not believe they will deliver on the Irish Language Act,” said the source

“Our position is that the nomination for first minister and deputy first minister has to be accompanied by legislation on the Irish language.”

In response, the DUP said it stood “resolute” in its determination to respect powersharing in Northern Ireland.

Referencing the potential for a political crisis during the Covid pandemic, a party spokesman added: “No-one would forgive Sinn Fein for playing fast and loose with people’s lives in Northern Ireland.

“The DUP leadership stands resolute to enter government, respect powersharing and get on with the job.

“It is up to others to follow.

“We remain committed to the New Decade, New Approach agreement and want to see it implemented in all its parts.”

The cultural elements of NDNA, which include protections for Irish and Ulster Scots speakers, would be delivered in the form of amendments to the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.

With the law changes having already been drafted as part of the NDNA deal, the draft legislation can commence its journey through the Assembly once the Executive gives it the green light.

This could be done at a meeting of the devolved administration or by way of an urgent written procedure initiated jointly by the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The Executive cannot meet in the period between Mrs Foster resigning and a successor being confirmed in the role.

It is understood Sinn Fein would engage in the renomination process if that was followed by a swift meeting of the Executive to sign off on the language legislation.

Watch: Edwin Poots officially ratified as new leader of Democratic Unionist Party

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