THE debacle over the Northern Ireland protocol has showed no signs of slowing down, and has now even led to the resignation of the nation’s First Minister.

Paul Givan quit his post on Thursday afternoon as part of the DUP’s strategy of protest against the Brexit agreement imposed on them by Boris Johnson’s London government.

It followed the extraordinary step taken by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots to order an end to agri-food checks at Northern Irish ports.

Unlike Poots’s move however, which has so far done nothing other than prompt some extraordinary claims from the Tory government about how international treaties are suddenly outwith their remit, Givan’s has had the immediate effect of also removing Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (below) from office.

The National: Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

Furthermore, while the checks are yet to actually halt, the three-year budget process at Stormont cannot now move forward without Givan and O’Neill in post.

The Tories’ Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, said the responsibility for bringing “stability” to the nation lies with its political leaders, ignoring the fact it is the central Westminster government which holds the power to renegotiate the Brexit deal.

But although the Unionists in Northern Ireland are set against the protocol, no-one in a position of power in London seems willing to tell them that it has already been signed off.

Being the bearer of bad news could be disastrous for a power-hungry minister with their eyes on the keys to a surely soon to be vacated No 10.

READ MORE: Northern Ireland Protocol is the law and must be adhered to, says Sinn Fein

Lewis’s pushing of responsibility onto the devolved institutions for the debacle is not likely to last long. The arguments will wither when put into a Scottish context, where the Tories are instead aiming to keep such powers out of the hands of the Edinburgh government.

And regardless of what the Tories say internally, to the world and the EU it is the UK which is responsible for any of the moves it allows the DUP to take, especially if those moves fall far outwith their devolved powers.

Matthew O'Toole, an MLA for the SDLP, said Givan's party's "reckless and childish stunts" amounted to economic and diplomatic sabotage. He said it was apparently being done "with the collusion of the UK Government".

The Tories' new-found position does beg the question: if devolved administrations do have the power to unilaterally alter international treaties, why was the UK Government so set on keeping them away from the Brexit negotiating table in the first place?


Neale Richmond, Fine Gael TD and spokesperson on European affairs

The National:

In the latest twist in the ongoing Brexit debacle, in response to the ongoing issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol, the DUP’s Paul Givan, First Minister of Northern Ireland, has announced his resignation. This comes after Edwin Poots announced a suspension of checks on all goods coming into Northern Ireland in yet another breach of international law.

Two years into Brexit, that the people of Northern Ireland are still being subjected to political posturing and games, is disgraceful. With no First Minister, Stormont will automatically lose its Deputy First Minister under power-sharing rules and no significant decisions can be made.

Who will pay the price for this? It will not be the EU, it will not be the British Government, it will be the people of Northern Ireland; the very people who voted to remain in the EU in the first instance in 2016. With no leaders the Northern Ireland Executive will effectively be paralysed, it will be unable to agree the three-year budget, an upcoming state apology on institutional abuse will not go ahead and almost every area of life in Northern Ireland will be impacted in some way. Put simply after years of being used as a political punching bag the people of Northern Ireland cannot move forward like this – they simply do not deserve it.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson will 'be remembered for contempt shown to Northern Ireland', Bloody Sunday expert says

Just days ago, Northern Ireland marked the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, one of the most horrific tragedies of The Troubles. While acknowledging that there is much room for further reconciliation in Northern Ireland, political leaders marvelled at how much progress has been made in fifty short years. We then unfortunately saw a bomb scare in Derry city centre, reminding us of how fragile the peace in Northern Ireland really is.

Political posturing akin to these moves from the DUP only serves to move Northern Ireland backwards by using the protocol to stoke old tensions between communities.

Once again, we must remind ourselves that while there are issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol, this is an agreement the British Government signed up to. Negotiations are ongoing between the EU and UK on the Protocol, Maroš Šefčovič (below) has met with stakeholders in Northern Ireland, heard their concerns and offered changes to the Protocol as such. While checks do take place upon entry to Northern Ireland, the DUP have no right to derail these.

The National: Maros Sefcovic

Violating international law, putting the European Single Market at risk, as well as the UK’s internal market, is in no way going to gain any leverage in these negotiations. We have to ask ourselves – who do the DUP think is winning from such moves?

Clearly, there is a void of leadership in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government must seek to do all we can to protect the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, from all communities. At the end of the day, everyone in Northern Ireland is impacted by these political games, whether Nationalist, Unionist or neither. The Irish Government must use our position as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement in order to protect everyone in Northern Ireland where their leaders will not.


– Was this a surprise?

No. DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been threatening to pull Givan from the Executive for months in protest at the economic barriers on Irish Sea trade created by the Northern Ireland Protocol. These repeated warnings, without subsequent action, had led some critics to portray Donaldson as the boy who cried wolf. On Thursday, the DUP leader finally followed through and withdrew his First Minister from the devolved institutions.

– Why has Michelle O’Neill lost her job too?

The powersharing structures created during the peace process mean a functioning Executive can only operate if the largest Unionist party and largest Nationalist party share the joint office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister (The Executive Office).

One cannot remain in position without the other. Givan’s resignation forcibly removes O’Neill from post.

– So, does this trigger a snap Assembly election?

If first and deputy first ministers are not renominated within a week, the UK Government assumes a legal responsibility to call an Assembly election within a “reasonable” time frame. Legislation that has almost completed its passage through Westminster would significantly extend this “cooling off” period to up to nine months. However, most of this is largely academic in the current situation, as Northern Ireland already has a scheduled Assembly election in May. At most, Givan’s resignation could see the date for that poll brought forward by several weeks.

Matthew O'Toole suggested the upcoming vote was behind the DUP's current actions. "They are terrified of facing the electorate in May and are doing everything they can to distract voters from their own failures," he said.

– Is this all about the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The National: A sign by Unionists against the NI Protocol in Larne

From the DUP perspective, very much so. The party contends that such drastic action is required to demonstrate the strength of opposition it claims exists within the broader Unionist/Loyalist community about the so-called Irish Sea border. The resignation of the First Minister comes a day after DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots ordered a unilateral halt to the agri-food checks at Northern Ireland ports required under the protocol. This week’s events mark a co-ordinated escalation of the DUP’s campaign against the post-Brexit trade arrangements.

For the DUP’s rivals however, this is all about the election. The DUP has been on the end of some recent bruising opinion poll results and, barring a significant turnaround in fortunes, Sinn Fein is on course to replace it as the largest party in Northern Ireland. The republican party claims the actions of the DUP are part of a cynical strategy designed to galvanise its electoral base and win back voters disillusioned by its handling of the Brexit process.

– Do the other Executive ministers stay in post?

Yes. While Givan and O’Neill have vacated their roles, the other ministers in the administration can continue with their day-to-day duties, albeit they are hamstrung from making major policy moves.

– So, what practical effect does it have?

Under Stormont rules, significant or controversial decisions, or ones that cut across the briefs of several departments, need the approval of the full Executive. Without a first and deputy first minister, the Executive cannot meet and such decisions cannot be taken. Policies that have not yet been introduced, but which have gained the necessary Executive approval, could proceed. Various bills that have commenced their legislative journey in the Assembly could be able to become law – though that largely depends on time and whether the mandate is cut short by the calling of an early election.

– Then what is in jeopardy?

The most significant item of unfinished business for the current Executive is the draft three-year budget. Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy’s spending plan envisages a significant reconfiguration of Executive spending priorities to boost investment in the region’s under-pressure health service. A failure to agree a final Executive budget would derail those plans to prioritise health spending.

Givan and O’Neill had also been due to deliver an official apology to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland on March 11. That could not proceed without them being in post.

The appointment of a new victims’ commissioner for Northern Ireland can also not happen.

– What about Covid-19 restrictions?

A small number of public health curbs remain in place, such as the wearing of face masks in certain settings and obligations on businesses to collect contact tracing information and conduct risk assessments.

The fate of these measures in the absence of an Executive is unclear. While the measures were introduced as a consequence of Executive-wide decisions, DUP sources insist UUP Health Minister Robin Swann can use emergency powers granted during the pandemic to lift them unilaterally. A source close to Swann questioned that contention on Thursday and said the position requires legal scrutiny.

– Have we not been here before?

Yes. Devolution only returned to Stormont in January 2020 after a three-year powersharing impasse triggered by the resignation of the late Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness. McGuinness’s move in 2017 forced the then DUP first minister Arlene Foster from post. The other ministers remained in post until a subsequent snap election. The dispute between the DUP and Sinn Fein, which erupted amid a row over a botched green energy scheme, widened to take in longstanding wrangles over issues such as the Irish language and the legacy of the Troubles. It lasted for three years, with the institutions finally returning as a result of the New Decade, New Approach agreement.