Northern Ireland first minister resigns over Brexit checks on goods

Paul Givan’s move triggers parallel departure of deputy first minister and could bring forward elections

Paul Givan speaks at a press conference to announce his resignation.

The first minister of Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist party’s Paul Givan, has resigned, plunging the devolved government at Stormont into turmoil two years after power-sharing with Sinn Féin was restored.

His resignation, over Brexit checks in the Irish Sea, will also bring the parallel departure of the Sinn Féin deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, under the power-sharing arrangements.

The move could result in a snap election, bringing forward the assembly polls scheduled for May.

The DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, and the Sinn Féin president, Mary Lou McDonald, have both called for a snap election for Stormont. “I believe it is time for the people of Northern Ireland to have their say,” said Donaldson after Givan’s departure.

McDonald said: “I want to be clear, we cannot stagger on in the months ahead without a functioning executive … an early election must be called and the people must have their say.”

Holding back tears as he thanked his wife and family, Givan, who has been first minister for just eight months, said it had been the “privilege of my lifetime” to hold the position but he had to go as the principle of consent that lay behind the institutions of power were being “tested” by Brexit.

It is the culmination of months of protests by the DUP against checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea. It came as polls indicated Sinn Féin is in contention to overtake the DUP as the largest party in Northern Ireland in local elections due in May, threatening the party’s right to the first minister position.

Explaining the decision to withdraw leadership from Stormont, Donaldson said he had warned the British government the DUP would quit the executive if the party did not obtain a radical change to the Brexit protocol that eliminated all the checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.

“I think now is the moment when we say enough is enough,” he said.

In a swipe at Sinn Féin, Donaldson added: “It has been a long established norm that arrangements and agreements [in Northern Ireland] can only flourish when supported by unionists and nationalists. One of most disturbing characteristics of this period is the total disregard of this principle by Brussels, by Dublin and the protocol cheerleaders here in Northern Ireland.”

The departure of Givan came just hours after the DUP agriculture minister, Edwin Poots, ordered a halt to Brexit checks on food and farm products coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The DUP’s decision was roundly criticised by opposition parties. The Sinn Féin finance minister, Conor Murphy, called it “reckless and self-serving”, while Doug Beattie, the head of the Ulster Unionist party, said it would “create more destabilisation” and “more hardship for the people of Northern Ireland”.

He said it was an election stunt that would have no impact on Brexit checks. “At the end of it all, the protocol will still be there,” he said.

The removal of the co-chairs of the Stormont executive is a serious blow to local government and will freeze decision-making on budget matters, healthcare and energy bill grants.

Other ministers can continue with their portfolios, allowing Stormont to stumble on until the elections in May, but the executive’s function will be paralysed.

The DUP manoeuvres are being seen by rivals as positioning for the May elections and come after repeated threats by Donaldson to quit Stormont over the Brexit checks.

The Alliance party MP Stephen Farry said before the announcement that the first minister’s resignation would be “an act of huge harm” to Northern Ireland.

The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, poured scorn on Donaldson’s reference to historic peacekeeper John Hume. “Citing John Hume while threatening the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement is just low. He couldn’t lace John’s boots.”

The Traditional Unionist Voice leader, Jim Allister, told the BBC’s Stephen Nolan it was “about time” the first minister resigned.

“There can never be a settlement on this issue,” he said of the Northern Ireland protocol. “The protocol is worse than a pandemic for our constitution position, the protocol kills the union [of the United Kingdom].”

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