Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party was originally a party of protest. Founded in 1971 by Ian Paisley, it stood for no surrender. It opposed every attempt by successive British governments to build power-sharing institutions, including the Good Friday agreement in 1998. Then, in 2007, the DUP decided to be a party of power, with Mr Paisley becoming Northern Ireland’s first minister. Since then, it has been the main party of government, first under Mr Paisley, then Peter Robinson and, until last month, Arlene Foster. But, under Edwin Poots, the DUP reverted to being a protest party once more.
Mr Poots’s ousting of Mrs Foster was essentially an act of bloodletting between the free presbyterian base of the original Paisleyite party and the DUP’s less doctrinaire members. Some of the latter, alienated by Mrs Foster’s mistakes over Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol, had already drifted away. But the ousting was a coup without a strategy for winning such voters back; it will lead to further defections. Instead, Mr Poots doubled down on the old religion. His priority was to redirect the party, not to govern Northern Ireland. On Thursday night that effort imploded and Mr Poots had to quit.
In a turbulent 24 hours, Mr Poots’s approach unravelled. He wanted his fellow creationist Paul Givan to become first minister. Sinn Féin said that it would only nominate a deputy alongside a commitment to Irish language legislation, which hardline unionists, seeing everything in zero-sum terms, oppose. After late-night talks, the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, gave such an assurance. If the Northern Ireland executive does not pass such a law by the end of September, it will be done at Westminster. On Thursday, Mr Givan’s name was duly put forward and approved, along with that of Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as deputy.
Yet, even before the vote, most of the DUP’s assembly members and MPs, including several original backers of Mr Poots, were in outright revolt. Part of the motive behind the backlash was pure sectarian opposition to Irish language legislation. Another part was the belief that Mr Poots surrendered with humiliating speed, which is not a good Paisleyite look. A third is that it may mean direct legislation from Westminster, undermining the century-old devolution to what was originally the sectarian unionist government of Northern Ireland. A fourth is that this also happened in 2019, when the UK enacted more liberal abortion laws for the province, something that the DUP never accepted.
Mr Poots had to go. A new leader, perhaps Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, may hold the line in ways he could not. Even if the new executive survives, the language bill could bring it down in September. That may mean that assembly elections, due in May 2022, could be brought forward. This suits Sinn Féin, which can sit and watch as the DUP destroys itself. The possibility that Sinn Féin will soon be Northern Ireland’s largest party, with the right to nominate the next first minister, has grown for many months. On Thursday it became almost a certainty. The DUP often seems to yearn for the past. Now it may itself soon be part of it.