Democratic Unionist Party chief Edwin Poots was forced to resign Thursday night after only three weeks in charge of Northern Ireland’s main pro-British party, a rapid-fire fall that sharpens tensions in a U.K. region already rattled by Brexit.
Poots, who was narrowly ratified as DUP chief on May 28 after leading a rebellion against previous leader Arlene Foster, faced an overwhelming no-confidence vote among the party’s lawmakers after a day that started with a breakthrough and ended in a bitter backlash.
An ashen-faced Poots left an emergency meeting at Democratic Unionist headquarters without comment. He soon issued a brief resignation statement, saying he would stay as caretaker party leader until a successor is elected.
“This has been a difficult period for the party and the country,” Poots said, adding he would “do everything I can to ensure both unionism and Northern Ireland is [sic] able to move forward to a stronger place.”
The most likely candidate to succeed him is party centrist Jeffrey Donaldson, a veteran MP who narrowly lost to Poots in a 19-17 vote last month at the party HQ in Protestant east Belfast.
Poots, a hardliner known for his no-nonsense style and fundamentalist Christian beliefs, had pledged to mobilize grassroots unionist opposition to the Brexit trade protocol. Most unionists backed Brexit but loathe the protocol, because it imposes EU checks on goods arriving from the rest of the U.K. and spurs trade across a barrier-free border with the Republic of Ireland.
He also promised to take the political fight to the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin, the DUP’s erstwhile colleagues atop Northern Ireland’s feud-prone coalition.
Yet Poots’ success in toppling Foster set the stage for his own absurdly rapid downfall. It gave Sinn Féin powerful and immediate political leverage to use against him.
Foster’s removal as Democratic Unionist leader also obliged her to step down as first minister, the top power-sharing post. When she did this Monday, Poots’ choice to replace her, fellow DUP lawmaker Paul Givan, couldn’t gain office without backing from Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin said it would withhold that essential support unless the DUP agreed to pass an Irish Language Act, a step that would give Ireland’s native tongue equal legal footing to English — and a concession the DUP has resisted for years.
Poots insisted he wouldn’t commit to passing that bill even “with a gun to my head.”
Aware that failure to fill the first minister’s post would collapse power-sharing for the second time in four years, Sinn Féin lobbied the British government to defuse the crisis through direct intervention. To the DUP’s shock, Britain agreed in a midnight deal to pass an Irish Language Act and impose it on Northern Ireland by October. This exposed Poots’ obstructionist tactics as impotent.
Despite being outmaneuvered, Poots seized on the British-Sinn Féin deal to press ahead Thursday morning with Givan’s appointment as first minister. He dismissed the fury expressed by other DUP lawmakers, who wanted instead to press Britain to reverse its intervention.
Minutes before the Northern Ireland Assembly convened to confirm Givan, those DUP lawmakers huddled in a nearby cafeteria to express their anger and disappointment. They voted, by an overwhelming 24-4 margin, to oppose installing Givan. But Poots and Givan had already walked away and into the Assembly ceremony, where a jubilant Sinn Féin authorized Givan’s appointment.
Both Donaldson and Poots supporters expressed disbelief that Poots had ignored the DUP lawmakers’ overwhelming opposition to his tactics.
Seven of the DUP’s eight MPs leaked an email slamming Poots. Hours later, as lawmakers gathered at party HQ to seek his scalp, one of those MPs, the party’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson, said Poots had to go.
“If you’ve no followers,” Wilson said, “you can’t be a leader.”
Poots’ resignation throws into doubt whether Givan, his loyal constituency lieutenant for two decades, can survive long as first minister.
Sinn Féin may soon be anointing yet another DUP figure in that role — or pulling the plug on power-sharing in favor of a snap early election. Sinn Féin is heavily favored to finish first in the next vote, seizing the first minister’s post and ending the DUP’s nearly two-decade run as Northern Ireland’s most popular party.