Q Radio News/PA
A meeting of DUP party officers is under way amid a major internal revolt against recently elected leader Edwin Poots.
Senior DUP figures gathered at party headquarters in Belfast amid speculation Mr Poots could potentially face a vote of no confidence.
The DUP appears to be in internal disarray after a significant majority of its elected representatives earlier opposed Mr Poots’ decision to nominate a Stormont First Minister.
A sizeable majority of MLAs and MPs voted against his decision to reconstitute the powersharing Executive with Sinn Fein in a bruising internal meeting just minutes before the process for nominating Stormont’s leaders began in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Members are furious that Mr Poots pressed ahead with nominating his Lagan Valley constituency colleague Paul Givan as First Minister after Sinn Fein secured a key concession from the UK Government to legislate for Irish language laws at Westminster.
A post-midnight announcement by the Government, committing to pass the stalled laws at Westminster in the autumn if they were not moved at the Stormont Assembly in the interim, was enough to convince Sinn Fein to drop its threat not to nominate a deputy First Minister as joint head of the devolved Executive.
The development came after a night of intensive talks involving Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and DUP and Sinn Fein delegations in Belfast.
Many DUP politicians had warned against a Government intervention on such a sensitive devolved issue and they are enraged that Mr Poots was still prepared to enter a new coalition on that basis.
Arriving at the party officer meeting in east Belfast on Thursday afternoon, East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson, who voiced his opposition to Mr Poots at the earlier party meeting at Stormont, was asked whether Mr Poots could survive a vote of no confidence.
Any vote of no confidence by the officers would not force Mr Poots from his role, but it would heap further pressure on his embattled leadership.
Mr Wilson said that any leader who did not have the support of party officers would “find it very difficult” to stay in their position.
“I think that any leader who doesn’t have the confidence of party officers and didn’t have the confidence of their Assembly group and their MPs will find it very difficult to stay in their position,” he said.
“You cannot lead people who are not following you. If you have no followers, you can’t be a leader, can you?”
DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson arrives at the DUP headquarters in Belfast for a meeting of the party officers
Earlier on Thursday morning, Mr Wilson was among several DUP MPs and peers who sent an urgent email to Mr Poots urging him to hold off nominating Mr Givan until he explained his decision to reassemble the Executive after Sinn Fein secured its key ask on Irish language laws.
The new DUP leader, who succeeded the ousted Arlene Foster last month, is now facing serious questions about his own future after proceeding with Mr Givan’s nomination despite the internal opposition.
One senior party source at Thursday morning’s pre-nomination meeting described the atmosphere to the PA news agency.
“Dreadful. Utterly dreadful. Never experienced the like of it,” the source said.
After leaving the meeting, Mr Poots nominated Mr Givan as First Minister while Sinn Fein renominated Michelle O’Neill as deputy First Minister at a specially convened Assembly sitting.
The stand-off between the Executive’s two main parties over the thorny language issue has been threatening the future of the fragile institutions in Belfast.
The issue came to a head this week as a result of the process required to reconstitute the Executive following the resignation of Mrs Foster as First Minister.
The joint nature of the office Mrs Foster shared with deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill meant her departure automatically triggered the removal of Ms O’Neill from her position – as one cannot hold post without the other.
While Mr Poots has vowed to implement all outstanding aspects of the 2020 New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal that restored powersharing, he has declined to give Sinn Fein a specific assurance that he will move on the language element of the NDNA deal in the current Assembly mandate, a key demand of the republican party.
Amid the dispute, earlier this week Sinn Fein asked the UK Government to step in and move the legislation at Westminster instead. DUP figures had warned Mr Lewis against such a step, characterising it as an overreach into devolution.
But in the early hours of Thursday, the Secretary of State announced that the Government would table the language legislation at Westminster in October if Stormont had failed to do so by the end of September.
Mr Poots later voiced opposition to legislating on the issue at Westminster but said he would still proceed with nominating Mr Givan as First Minister.
The email subsequently sent to Mr Poots, a copy of which has been seen by PA, was signed by defeated leadership candidate Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, party chairman Lord Morrow, senior MPs Mr Wilson, Gregory Campbell and Gavin Robinson, former deputy leader Lord Dodds and a number of other senior members.
In total, seven of the DUP’s eight MPs signed the email, with Ian Paisley being the exception. The party’s five peers also signed it.
Many of those who signed the email would have supported Sir Jeffrey in his leadership bid, though some, like MP Paul Girvan, supported Mr Poots’ candidacy.
Accepting Mr Poots’ nomination and taking the pledge of office during the special Assembly sitting, MLA Mr Givan thanked his party leader for having “confidence in me”.