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What does Paul Givan’s resignation as first minister of Northern Ireland mean?

We could be looking at the beginning of the end of power-sharing in Northern Ireland

By Ailbhe Rea

Paul Givan has announced his resignation as the first minister of Northern Ireland, effective from midnight this evening.

The resignation of Givan, who is the DUP’s first minister at Stormont but not its party leader (that is Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP who doesn’t sit in the assembly in Belfast), effectively ushers in the collapse of the devolved government. But in the short term at least, this will be less dramatic than we have seen before in recent years, because new legislation in Westminster, which has not yet passed but which will apply retrospectively, allows some of the functions of Stormont to carry on as they were.

Givan’s resignation triggers the resignation of the deputy first minister too: in this case, that is Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill. This is not a political decision, but an automatic condition of their status as joint heads of government: if one resigns, both do. But the new legislation means that other ministers in the executive will remain for between six and nine months, and legislation that was already agreed and decisions that have already been taken will not be affected.

However, the executive will not be able to meet and no new decisions can be taken. This poses no end of questions about what would happen with coronavirus legislation, a budget, the appointment of a victims’ commissioner, and countless other bits of work the executive needs to undertake in the coming month.

An assembly election is due to take place on 5 May, and there is little to no chance of that being brought forward. The parties were already in election mode, and the resignation ushers in a temporary state of paralysis in Northern Irish politics.

The implications reach far beyond crucial decision-making, however. The move is a signal by the DUP that it refuses to preside over the customs checks taking place on the Irish Sea border as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit deal. Givan said in his resignation statement:

“The delicate balance created by the Belfast and St Andrews agreements has been impacted by the agreement made by the United Kingdom and the European Union which created the Northern Ireland protocol.” He added that he hopes to see the executive soon restored, “through a resolution to the issues that have regrettably brought us to this point”.

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The DUP’s critics see the resignation as a cynical political stunt before elections in which the DUP fears it will lose its place as the biggest party, and therefore the first ministership, for the first time.

The DUP has also ordered a halt to checks on goods at the Irish Sea border, although so far that has not happened. Civil servants are in a bind over whether to take the instructions from Edwin Poots, the Northern Irish agriculture minister, which would mean shirking the UK’s obligations under international law. Poots insists that he has taken legal advice to authorise the move and, crucially, the UK government has said it won’t stand in the Northern Irish executive’s way.

[See also: Polling on the protocol: Westminster is a long way from Northern Ireland]

The halt to checks is, again, seen by the DUP’s critics as a political stunt. They argue that Poots is playing to his party’s base at a time when support is wavering, without creating any new leverage for the UK in its negotiations over the protocol (because the UK has already declared that the conditions for triggering article 16, which allows for unilateral “safeguard” measures if the protocol causes difficulties, have been met). The DUP would say that it has been warning that it could do this for some time, and that the move puts pressure on the EU and UK to find a resolution.

The standoff means that while Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the Covid-stricken Foreign Secretary, deal with a crisis over Ukraine and a police investigation into events in No 10, another front has opened. It is a crisis for the UK and Irish governments, as well as the EU, to resolve.

But it raises serious questions about the governance of Northern Ireland in the much longer term. As several people have put it to me today: If the DUP walks away from the executive now, under what conditions will it come back? The party, at a low ebb in the polls, has already been threatening not to participate in Northern Irish power-sharing under a Sinn Fein first minister after the May elections. Now it has walked away from power-sharing before that point, in protest at the Irish Sea border arrangements. It would need a major victory on the protocol to come back, but even that might not be enough. As one senior Northern Irish politician put it to me: “One they collapse the executive, the stakes are even higher and the odds even lower of getting it back. The DUP have their demands, and Sinn Fein will have their new demands too.” We could be looking at the beginning of the end of power-sharing in Northern Ireland for some time.

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