openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The DUP’s first minister nomination could return Northern Ireland to crisis

In the appointment of Paul Givan as the party’s choice to replace Arlene Foster, the DUP is doubling down on its fundamentalist roots

Sarah Creighton
11 June 2021, 2.48pm
Paul Givan, 39, is expected to become Northern Ireland's youngest first minister
Clodagh Kilcoyne/REUTERS/Alamy

After deposing outgoing Northern Irish first minister Arlene Foster in a brutal coup, all eyes have been on Edwin Poots. In the three weeks since his election as the DUP’s leader, the party has been embroiled in controversy. Resignations, infighting and, in recent days, the removal of every Foster loyalist from the Northern Ireland Executive paint a messy picture. A change of leadership was supposed to unite the party. Instead, the DUP seems more divided than ever.

When Foster resigns on 14 June she won’t be replaced by Poots. He doesn’t want the position. Instead, the next first minister is expected to be Paul Givan, a Poots loyalist and a staunch conservative. At 39, he could be the youngest first minister in Northern Ireland’s history.

Givan, Poots and Foster are all bound together by a long thread. It runs through the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal (RHI), to Brexit, to now. Givan’s elevation says everything about the DUP and the path the party has chosen to go down. His appointment could spell trouble, not only for the DUP, but for progressives and Northern Ireland as well.

One glib email

The email went out the night before Christmas Eve in 2016.

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“Because of efficiency savings, the department will not be providing the Líofa bursary scheme in 2017. Happy Christmas and Happy New Year.”

The department in question was the Department for Communities in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Its minister, Paul Givan.

Across the island of Ireland, young people travel to Irish-speaking areas (Gaeltachts) to learn the language at summer colleges. The Líofa bursary helps working-class students with the cost. That evening, it was taken away in one glib email.

Givan’s decision to withdraw the bursary was, for Sinn Féin, another example of Unionist arrogance and disdain towards the Irish language. It spoke to a wider feeling within the party that the institutions weren’t working. A few weeks prior, parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly had tried to remove Foster from office due to the RHI scandal.

The minister restored the funding the following month, but the damage had been done. Givan’s mistake coupled with RHI was too much for Sinn Féin. Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister on 7 January 2017. The Assembly didn’t return for three years.

In removing Foster and appointing Givan, the DUP is replacing one disaster with another. The party’s future is still its past. It can’t detach itself from Foster or Givan’s legacy because they’re unable to reckon with their own mistakes.

Even before the Líofa debacle, Givan was already notorious. He has been a thorn in the side of every progressive in Northern Ireland for many years. In appointing him, the DUP is doubling down on its fundamentalist roots.

In 2015 Givan tried to introduce a Freedom of Conscience Bill in the Assembly. The Equality Commission said it “would significantly weaken protection against discrimination in Northern Ireland for lesbian, gay and bisexual people when accessing goods, facilities and services or buying or renting premises”.

Northern Ireland has made significant progress when it comes to LGBT and abortion rights. Givan, like a lot of DUP MLAs, voted to maintain Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, which did not allow abortions in cases of rape and incest. In February of this year, he proposed a bill to restrict access to abortion in cases of severe foetal abnormality. Activists believe this is the start of a right-wing pushback against hard-won gains.

If Givan becomes first minister, he will have a larger platform to push his conservative views. LGBT, abortion and language rights activists are ready to fight back.

The stage is set for political drama

In an ironic twist of fate, the Irish language has once again become a political hot topic. Givan could be at the centre of it all.

Last year’s New Decade, New Approach agreement states that Irish language legislation will be brought forward in the Assembly. Poots has given assurances that his party won’t block a language bill. Some fear that the party is dragging its heels and is about to renege on what was promised. Irish language activists, quite rightly, want answers.

In recent days, Sinn Féin assembly member and Northern Irish deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill has demanded more than “fluffy words” to reassure her party that Irish language legislation is forthcoming. The stage is set for political drama.

If Givan becomes first minister, he will have a larger platform to push his conservative views

When Foster resigns as first minister, the DUP must nominate her replacement within seven days. O’Neill must also be confirmed deputy first minister at the same time. If Sinn Féin feels like sending a message to the DUP, it could refuse to re-nominate. If an Executive can’t be formed, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland in Westminster must call an election.

Are Sinn Féin and the DUP ready for an election? On 10 June, sources talked down the threat. That doesn’t mean there isn’t trouble ahead.

In terms of votes, both the DUP and Sinn Féin have lost ground over the past few years. A recent poll suggests that Sinn Féin’s vote could increase. If that happens O’Neill could be first minister.

The Office of First and Deputy First Minister is jointly held, but the DUP doesn’t see it that way. Can the party cope with second place? I fear the answer is no. I hope I’m wrong. If so, the Assembly could collapse once again.

This isn’t about a single politician but a greater question, can the institutions survive another crisis? Northern Ireland is battle-scarred from the past few years. It lurches into a new era damaged from the pandemic, Brexit and self-inflicted wounds. Political leaders are needed to guide it out of the shadows. We don’t need political deadlock but devolution that works for the people on the ground.

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