Does Edwin Poots’ resignation as DUP leader mean Northern Ireland will have an early election? The short answer is, unexpectedly, no. Or at least, not necessarily.
In the whirlwind of events that led to his resignation yesterday, the DUP leader nominated Paul Givan as first minister without the consent of his party. He left a heated meeting with his party’s MLAs – and some of its MPs – to make the nomination, despite forceful objections from colleagues. After he left, DUP MPs and MLAs voted by a majority of 24 to four against nominating Givan, fearing that the agreement the DUP had reached with Sinn Féin ahead of the nominations amounted to a capitulation on Irish language legislation, at a time when the DUP already feels electorally vulnerable.
You could be forgiven for thinking the nomination would no longer hold, given the lack of support from the DUP’s representatives. Indeed, that is what many Stormont politicians initially did think: that the first and deputy ministers are effectively still unnominated, and therefore expecting that the seven-day window to nominate these offices would expire on Monday, triggering an election.
But it hinges on a technicality. Under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, the first minister of Northern Ireland is nominated by the nominating officer of the largest party (in this case, the DUP) within the largest political designation (“unionist”, based on the current make-up of the Stormont Assembly). The deputy first minister is appointed in a similar way, by the largest party (Sinn Féin) in the second largest designation (“nationalist”).
In plenty of cases, including Sinn Féin, the nominating officer of a political party is not its leader or its most senior figure in Stormont. But in the DUP’s case, Edwin Poots is both leader and nominating officer, which means his nomination of Paul Givan does still stand, without the support of his party.
That means that Paul Givan is still officially nominated as first minister and Michelle O’Neill as deputy. There will only be an election if one of them chooses to resign.
But a resignation from Givan is not impossible, as the DUP faces a leadership election and further turbulence, with Jeffrey Donaldson expected to replace Poots as leader. If Givan does choose to step down, the clock starts ticking all over again, giving the two parties another seven-day window to reach agreement, or face an election.