What just happened?

03 February 2022 - by Gráinne Walsh

Just seven weeks out from the date the Assembly was due to be dissolved, it appears that the political temperature has been raised a couple of degrees.

What just happened?  

In a week that saw DUP internal problems bubble out into the media, we have seen an impressive commandeering of the narrative, which has shifted from the future of Edwin Poots, to Edwin Poots taking hold of the future of the Executive. That’s not to say that this is a solo run; as the drafted resignation letter from the First Minister would indicate. 

 So, what do we know at this point? 

  • Resignation of First Minister triggers the resignation of the deputy First Minister 
  • Other Executive Ministers will remain in place until an election is called by the Secretary of State  
  • No new policy decisions which are of a cross-cutting nature, requiring Executive sign-off, can be progressed 
  • Legislation which is currently in process can continue, but no new legislation can be introduced. This includes the Budget, a £200 grant scheme to help households with energy costs, the appointment of a Victims Commissioner and the apology to Historical Institutional Abuse victims and survivors which was due to take place on 11 March 
  • The Executive cannot meet without First and deputy First Minister in place 

Critically, there is legislation currently progressing through Westminster which would allow for a grace period following the resignation of the First or deputy First Minister.  And we now understand that the government has added a retrospective amendment allowing for the legislation to be backdated. This is due to passed in coming weeks.

Possible scenarios 

What happens next, in the event that First Minister tenders his resignation, depends on whether the Secretary of State decides to call an election. At this stage it is different to what happened in 2017 when the institutions collapsed because Sinn Féin pulled all their ministers out of the Executive, and not just deputy First Minister.  

The future also depends on when the First Minister actually resigns and with the BBC’s Gareth Gordon now reporting that the resignation will be with immediate effect, the scenarios that we need to plan for are narrowing swiftly. 

The wider context is the ongoing talks between UK and the EU which have a deadline of the end of February so as to avoid any overlap with the Assembly election. It had been suggested that there was a sense of optimism emerging from the talks, and whilst there were still unresolved issues, that both sides were reporting progress.  

Speaking in the European Parliament a few weeks ago, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič told MEPs that the UK were “our neighbours, our allies, and I think all of us in this House would like to see them again as our strategic partners.” 

“For that to happen, we need to rebuild the trust, and trust is built by respecting our Agreements – the Agreements which were recently signed and ratified – be it on Withdrawal, be it on Trade and Cooperation, or be it the proper implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.” 

So, the question is what has happened to upset this dynamic?  

Given that DUP Party Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP had previously said he wasn’t going to trigger anything until after the UK/EU negotiations, the interesting question is what has prompted this recent move?  

Is there new information about the negotiations which has placed additional pressure on the DUP to withdraw from the Executive to look like they are taking a stand in advance of the election? What is the level of coordination between the UK negotiating team and the DUP to deliver a favourable outcome on negotiations? The fact that the NDNA legislation has been retrospectively backdated suggests that recent actions by the DUP won’t be entirely a surprise to the UK Government.  

What impact are current relationships between the ‘old guard’ and the new leadership having on decision making within the party? Are we seeing and feeling the repercussions of the leaderships battle of last summer? One thing is for sure is that there are many questions to which the answers are not yet clear. 

What about the election? 

It is up to the Secretary of State to call an election, if the offices of First and Deputy First Minister are vacant after seven days. He may decide to stick to the original polling date of 5 May, or he could bring that date forward.  However, he will have one eye on negotiations around the Protocol and whether an agreement is reached as this will surely have massive implications for what happens next.   

And while all eyes are focused on the DUP, how will the other parties, particularly Sinn Féin will react. 

One thing we can be certain of is that we are in for an interesting time over the next few weeks.