DUP sacks its leader – another twist in Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit turmoil

Edwin Poots, ousted as DUP leader (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Edwin Poots, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest party in N Ireland, resigned last night, just three weeks after he won the position. This is the latest twist in the ongoing crisis in the North in the aftermath of Brexit and the creation of the ‘Irish Sea border’.

Poots was forced to resign after an internal revolt in the DUP over concessions he made to keep the power-sharing Assembly in place. He agreed to appoint a new DUP First Minister, alongside Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister and appeared to concede to Sinn Fein’s call for the quick introduction of Irish language legislation that was agreed upon previously.

This is the latest twist in the turbulence fuelled by Brexit, which has caused a crisis in Unionism by creating a customs border in the Irish Sea, between Britain and N Ireland.

Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh from Militant Left (CWI Ireland), looks at the background to the crisis.


The government of Boris Johnson is playing a dangerous game of high wire diplomacy with the EU. The threat the British Prime Minister seeks to employ is the threat of a return to violence on the streets of Northern Ireland, with the aim of forcing the EU to retreat from requiring hard sea border checks. Such checks are deemed necessary to avoid the need for a ‘hard land border’ between north and south in Ireland, which were posed as a result of the ‘hard Brexit’ policy the Tory party under Johnson pursued.

In doing so, Johnson is attempting to repeat what his political opponents in Dublin and Brussels did to great effect when they raised the threat of ‘dissident’ republican violence attendant on the imposition of a hard land border during the Brexit negotiations over previous years. As part of the EU’s effort to use Northern Ireland to better tie in the UK into their trading area, Taoiseach [Irish Prime Minister] Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste [Deputy Prime Minister] Simon Coveney developed a sudden and profound concern for northern Catholics and an unheard-of awareness – for right-wing Fine Gael party politicians – of the impact of partition on the north.

Playing the ‘Orange card’

Of course, for his part, Johnson is not the first Conservative leader to seek to ‘play the Orange card’. Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston, of whom Johnson is a biographer, used the tactic in opposing Prime Minister Gladstone’s second Home Rule bill in the 1890s, coining the phrase that continues to echo today that ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’. The risk then, as now, with deploying the ‘orange card’, is that it involves playing upon deep-seated sectarian divisions which remain unresolved, and indeed unresolvable under capitalism. 

Johnson’s forays, talking up the threat of civil unrest, only make such unrest a more likely prospect. The fact that he set the ‘Twelfth of July’, the central date in the Orange Order ‘marching season’ calendar as the target date for resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol appears another move to only further exacerbate tensions.

Riots on the streets

In early April, the mounting tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol, which came into force but has not been fully implemented, to date, became visible on the streets, as loyalist rioters torched buses and threatened port workers. The potential for the riots to roll out of control was exhibited as rioters gathered from both sides of the Belfast ‘peace walls’ to attack each other. While the leaders of unionism and loyalism used the death of British Royal Prince Philip to cut across that upsurge and reassert their control, the potential is there for it to return – a fact exhibited by periodic and illegal mobilisations of loyalists in unionist strongholds, such as Portadown. 

Removal of Arlene Foster and the hand of loyalism

Apparent DUP complicity with the creation of a ‘hard sea border’ was the main driver for the removal of party leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster. Despite her record as a hard-line unionist leader, Foster was deemed to be out of step with the DUP grassroots. Her ousting as leader was only part of a wider cull of the broader leadership of the DUP, replaced with a new and even more hard-line generation built around the leadership of the highly conservative Edwin Poots [who has now also been forced to resign].

It was also significant that Edwin Poots’ opponent in the close DUP leadership run-off which followed the vote of no confidence in Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson, alleged at the party meeting to confirm her successor that his team had been threatened by loyalist paramilitaries of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) in the course of the election process. 

It goes without saying that this exemplifies the extent to which Northern Ireland is neither a stable or normal bourgeois-democratic society.

Unionism in a hard corner

Edwin Poots, the choice of political loyalism for the leadership of the DUP, at this time, entered the leadership at a moment of severe political challenge. 

He said he was committed to overturning the Northern Ireland Protocol – despite it being written in the heart of an international agreement between the UK and EU. At the same time, he tried to face down a continued slow-boil rebellion from the relatively more ‘liberal’ elements of his own party – many of whom are associated with the former ousted Foster leadership.

Poots was also challenged with rebuilding the DUP’s position as the leading party in Northern Ireland – at a time when polls indicate the party has lost support rapidly to both the ultra-hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice on the right, to the Ulster Unionist Party, under its new and more energetic leader, Dougie Beattie, and even to the bourgeois liberal party, the Alliance.

Succeeding at any one of these would be difficult alone but the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement means that Edwin Poots was challenged of doing all three at once. 

Edwin Poots flailing

The revolt against his predecessor and Edwin Poots’ subsequent leadership bid was rooted in his apparent determined commitment to overturning the NI Protocol – something which Arlene Foster had initially made the mistake of welcoming as an opportunity for Northern Ireland business. But Edwin Poots has not explained how he will effect this change. In particular, contrary to the demands from many corners of loyalism, he has openly made the case against a route involving the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive as a means to force a crisis, and a supposed resolution of the NI Protocol, in favour of unionism. 

Unlike his opponent for the leadership, Jeffrey Donaldson, Edwin Poots was less than clear on the alternative and for his first weeks in office advocated a more circuitous strategy of refusing to enact an Irish Language Act so long as the NI Protocol remained in place. To understand the political significance of this issue it is necessary to review the origins of the act in the history of the last four years.

Turning a social and economic crisis into another sectarian headcount

When the NI Executive collapsed at the end of 2016, it did so primarily as a result of the growing public revulsion over the Renewable Heat Initiative (‘cash for ash’ scandal) but also reflecting the mounting anger over austerity, inaction on economic stagnation and a failure to invest in public services. Both DUP and Sinn Féin faced rebellions from their respective support bases, in particular working-class communities, but uniquely in the history of power-sharing, this was a crisis grounded on social and economic issues instead of over sectarian and divisive concerns which tend to reinforce both parties’ electoral reserves. 

During the election that Arlene Foster forecast would become the most ‘divisive election ever’, both DUP and Sinn Féin desperately sought to reposition the focus on sectarian issues. The highly symbolic Irish language act became a focus of their efforts. Foster justifying her party’s outright refusal to agree on an Irish language act as ‘not feeding the crocodiles’. This early offensive and sectarian comment set the tone for the election and was followed by a very nasty campaign. As expected, the election results returned both parties with an increased mandate, although unionists had lost their overall majority in the Assembly.

The only problem was that the parties’ ‘red lines’ during the election campaign left them unable to negotiate a compromise to re-establish the Executive. Besides, it was increasingly clear that the Brexit vote would lead to parties in government having to make difficult decisions and make trade-offs on the new trading arrangements that would be necessary. 

Restored government and the promise of an Irish language act

After a three-year suspension in which public services were largely left in stasis, leading to mounting anger from voters, both parties felt compelled to make moves to re-establish the Executive. In doing so, they were pushed by an unprecedented and powerful strike of healthcare workers against a decision made prior to suspension to decouple and lower NHS pay in Northern Ireland. The deal that they cobbled together (‘New Decade, New Agenda’) contained action to restore pay parity for NHS workers but also included a commitment to adopt the totemic Irish Language Act – albeit tied to a wider Cultural/Identity package including measures to support the Ulster-Scots dialect.

Sinn Féin exerting pressure

Sinn Féin indicated that any refusal by the new DUP leadership to fail to introduce legislation for the cultural package would result in the potential collapse of the Executive. 

The resignation of Arlene Foster as First Minister automatically meant Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill was no longer deputy First Minister, as the two positions are jointly held. By withholding their consent on nominating a deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin effectively threatened to veto Poots’ nomination of his supporter Paul Givan as a replacement for Foster.

The apparent deadlock threatened a snap election since under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement unless a joint First Minister and deputy First Minister can be agreed and jointly nominated by the biggest nationalist and unionist parties within seven days, one has to be called.

British Secretary of State 

Earlier this week, Tory secretary of state, Brandon Lewis, intervened to remove the ‘roadblock’ and committed to bringing forward legislation in Westminster to enact the cultural package, including the Irish language act, by October, if it wasn’t delivered by the Stormont Executive. This intervention marks another step along the way of the Conservative government in London undermining locally-elected devolved power but it was greeted with jubilation by Sinn Fein’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, who stated that her party had found a way to get around DUP obstruction. 

Meanwhile, the move only ramped up the pressure on the new DUP leadership as their efforts to exploit the Irish language act, and by extension, the stability of the Executive, to remove the NI Protocol, were publicly quashed. 

While the manoeuvre by the British government cleared the way for the restoration of the Executive, London’s approach threw political unionism into a further crisis of its own making. Of course, on the other hand, questions are obviously posed about the quality and form of any Irish language act that the Conservative government in London will bring forward.

A Sinn Féin First Minister?

Regardless of machinations in Westminster, within a year or earlier, we face an assembly election which is likely to be a change election given the DUP’s profound difficulties. 

Sinn Féin has its own troubles, however, largely caused by damaging moves by the party leadership that appear to squeeze out more left-leaning and old-guard representatives in the north, such as former IRA prisoner and high profile MEP, Martina Anderson, ahead of the party potentially forming a coalition government in the South and all that will go with it. 

But even with such weaknesses, the sharp decline in support for the DUP is liable to result in Sinn Féin coming out as the largest party in the North. And that brings with it the imminently destabilising prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister in the next Assembly, where more Unionists will sit than Nationalists. 

The outlook for Northern Ireland: Protracted crisis

The reaction from more vocal and hard-line loyalists and the Traditional Unionist Voice to the public humiliation of Poots has been to threaten the DUP with electoral decimation in a future election. The instability within the DUP looks certain to continue. Despite its benefiting from the difficulties of the DUP, Sinn Féin also faces an inevitable backlash from working-class Catholics who feel the dreadful impact their neo-liberal economic policies and austerity measures are having.

Whatever comes in Northern Ireland, the difficulties facing the political elite are serious. The fundamental problems remain. The economy remains in the doldrums; austerity cuts will continue to bite; changing demographics, the full consequences of Brexit and the move towards independence in Scotland are all raising tensions and divisions over the national question.

Despite this dire outlook, Boris Johnson’s government remains intent on seeking to stoke the fires to renegotiate an advantage in ongoing trade talks. The British government selectively briefed its right-wing media that French president Emmanuel Macron had justified the need for sea border checks on the basis that Northern Ireland was not part of the UK. Subsequently, the claim was denied by French diplomats but whatever the truth, it is clear from the way this claim was leaked that the UK government is intent on playing the ‘Orange card’ with all the attendant risks that go with that. 

At the same time as the British government committed to introducing the cultural package, including the Irish language act, it has also more quietly moved to unilaterally extend the suspension of the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This act is likely to be challenged as unlawful by the European Commission. It signals the willingness of the British government to play fast and loose with international treaties it signed.

Workers’ unity and leadership to charter a better way forward

Against heightening tensions and efforts from bourgeois and petit-bourgeois politicians from all sides to exploit divisions to their own ends, it is more vital than ever that workers in the North of Ireland stand united behind a socialist, internationalist platform. 

Whenever an election to Stormont comes, it is vital that there is a platform of socialists standing on a genuinely cross-community basis to offer an alternative to the sectarian politics of division and failure. Vital to that end will be the role of trade union activists, who must seek all means to push their organisations to chart a course for our class towards real lasting peace and socialism. Part of that process is the need to form a new mass party of the working class.


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June 2021