The end of Edwin Poots’s 21-day spell as leader of the DUP sums up the ordeal of being a unionist leader. Elected as a hard-line replacement for Arlene Foster, he has departed now after being seen to have given too much away to Sinn Fein over the Irish language.
Who will replace him? The early candidate appears to be Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s Westminster leader who was defeated by Poots in last month’s contest. His supporters are championing him as a stabilising influence in a party which has ripped itself apart, with others suggesting that he should be elected without a contest.
Poots’s election was a last roll of the dice for his wing of the party, the fundamentalists who didn’t really get over the departure of Ian Paisley in 2008. Yet even the good reverend doctor was able to appeal to all branches of the DUP and unionism more broadly. Poots lacked the bandwidth to achieve that. Now the ramifications of his departure are more existential than whether the DUP can be put back together again.
Donaldson previously said he would not want to be both party leader and first minister. If he replaces Poots this poses a problem, as the incumbent – Poots’s former constituency assistant Paul Givan – is unlikely to be his natural choice. If Givan resigns – or is made to resign from that role – then we will have to go through another round of Stormont horse trading.
Poots was ousted over his acceptance of a backroom deal between Sinn Fein and the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis over an Irish Language Act, to get Givan nominated as first minister. His successor is likely to take a different tack. The assumption that politics would lumber on in Northern Ireland until next year’s scheduled assembly election is long gone.
Power-sharing and devolution are in a deeply precarious position. Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein will be inclined to back down on their respective positions, the latter especially given the understanding they reached with the Secretary of State this week. The shelf-life of the system of mandatory coalition in Northern Ireland is clearly unsuitable to stable governance.
If no first and deputy first minister can be appointed, then we are headed into an election which would certainly be one of the most divisive in recent memory. The timing of this, as the marching season is about to approach and with loyalism in a febrile mood, is unfortunate in the extreme.
If polling is to be believed, Sinn Fein are set to become the largest party, allowing them to nominate their candidate for first minister. That might be enough to encourage elements of unionism to simply pick up the ball and go home, ushering another prolonged period of direct rule.
Many would argue that Stormont is dysfunctional and, as demonstrated by the deal over Irish language, a Potemkin parliament. But the next Stormont assembly was set to vote on aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol in 2024 – which the DUP should have focused on. Yet it has instead condemned itself to a prolonged bout of feuding.
Poots’s legacy is likely to be a period of profound political dysfunction. He is not the only author of this situation of course, there is plenty of blame to go around in Belfast, London and Dublin.
The high politics of the situation are endlessly fascinating for some, but for those living in Northern Ireland – facing lengthening NHS waiting times, creaking public services and an economy yet to feel the full brunt of the Protocol – patience with politics is increasingly wearing thin.