Northern Ireland First Minister Paul Givan resigns over Brexit border checks

Friday, February 4, 2022

File:Paul Givan MLA.jpg

Paul Givan as DUP Lagan Valley MLA on May 9, 2016.
Image: Northern Ireland Assembly Commission.
(Image missing from Commons: image; log)

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) First Minister of Northern Ireland Paul Givan resigned effective midnight Friday as part of his party's protests against checks on goods coming from Great Britain.

The checking provision was introduced as part of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was decided during Brexit negotiations that saw the UK leave the European Union. However, prominent Unionists in Northern Ireland have strongly opposed its terms.

Givan's resignation will also force Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill from office in the devolved Executive (Stormont). This cripples the body's legislative power, meaning it can no longer meet to pass vital policies like the three-year budget, an energy bills grant and relaxing Covid-19 restrictions. However, other Stormont ministers remain in portfolio until the next elections scheduled for May.

Givan's emotional press statement indicated Northern Ireland's institutions are "being tested once again and the delicate balance created by the Belfast and St Andrew’s agreements has been impacted by the agreement made by the United Kingdom government and the European Union [Brexit]". He specifically mentioned the "cornerstone" principle of consent provided as part of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement that introduced the power-sharing Executive.

However, he emphasised his "earnest desire that all sections of the community will soon be able to give consent to the restoration of a fully functioning executive, through a resolution to the issues that have regrettably brought us to this point".

He called his resignation after almost eight months in the post "the end of what has been the privilege of my lifetime - to serve as the First Minister of Northern Ireland". He succeeded Arlene Foster after she resigned in June 2021. It was something "I never expected to have the opportunity to [do]" when first elected as Lagan Valley MLA in 2011, he added.

The decision was criticised by opposition parties, including "reckless and self-serving" by Sinn Féin finance minister Conor Murphy, in addition to officials in the British and Irish governments. Leader of Sinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald urged an early election to be called "in the absence of a functioning Executive" to show "the DUP actions have consequences, real consequences for people struggling". Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Doug Beattie framed it as destabilising, generating "more hardship for the people of Northern Ireland" and ultimately fruitless: "At the end of it all, the Protocol will still be there".

While McDonald criticised coming inaction on the budget and healthcare investment for "the DUPs own narrow and self-serving political interests", others expressed concern over the crippling of government services. UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis called the move "extremely disappointing" and urged a reinstatement to "ensure the necessary delivery of public services for the citizens of Northern Ireland". Prime Minister Boris Johnson emphasised the UK government's priority "for a resilient Northern Ireland Executive".

Taoiseach of Ireland Michéal Martin called Givan's decision "a highly damaging move". Through a spokesperson he warned "[i]t is absolutely vital for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland that the Executive is delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, particularly now as we emerge from the Covid pandemic". He urged "the DUP to return to full engagement with all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement" that the Protocol protects "in all its dimensions".

He added talks between the UK and EU, of which Ireland is a member, are ongoing and "must be given every chance to succeed". He further said: "The [European] Commission has put forward serious proposals which directly address the concerns about outstanding issues on implementation of the Protocol". Givan had told reporters he was resigning as Unionists were being required "to be seen and not heard" regarding the Protocol.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič met via video conference on Thursday to discuss the Protocol, "the only solution we have found with the UK government to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement". In a statement, Šefčovič called yesterday's instruction by Stormont Agriculture Minister and former DUP leader Edwin Poots to suspend certain checks for goods entering Northern Ireland "very unhelpful". Truss and Šefčovič will meet again on February 11.

February 1, 2021 graffiti in Belfast opposes the "Irish Sea border" introduced as part of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Image: User:Whiteabbey.

Unionist politicians have made their position on the Protocol clear. Following Givan's resignation, DUP party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said it "represents an existential threat to the future of Northern Ireland's place within the Union". He added the UK government has not held up the New Decade, New Approach agreement that was the basis for the DUP re-entering the Executive in January 2020. The deal ended a three-year impasse in power-sharing between Sinn Féin and the DUP following the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

The Irish Independent understands the statement and time of Givan's resignation was confirmed in a meeting between high-ranking DUP members earlier on Thursday.

Poots's decision to suspend sanitary and phytosanitary checks not imposed by December 31, 2020 allegedly followed legal advice which "concluded that I can direct the checks to cease in the absence of Executive approval". Although the UK government has said it will not intervene in a "matter for the Northern Ireland Executive", it faced criticism as "a breach of international law" by Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. Šefčovič called it as "essential" that checks are still being conducted, while a spokesperson on Johnson's behalf expressed support for "a swift resolution."