Jeffrey Donaldson is set to step down from his Westminster seat in the autumn and go home to Northern Ireland to lead the DUP from Stormont.
he Lagan Valley MP, who is on course to be crowned party leader on Saturday, will nominate a caretaker first minister until he returns to the Assembly – if the Executive remains on course to survive.
DUP sources said the party’s decision to re-nominate, within seven days after current First Minister Paul Givan resigns, will depend on movement on the Northern Ireland Protocol. The British government’s decision to legislate at Westminster for the Irish language would not be the party’s main focus, they said.
Mr Donaldson’s route back to Stormont is likely to come via a DUP MLA due not to stand again in next May’s Assembly election, fast-forwarding their planned retirement to allow the party leader’s co-option.
If power-sharing is saved after Mr Donaldson takes up the reins this weekend, he will consider several choices as interim first minister. Insiders ruled out Arlene Foster postponing her retirement from local politics to take up the role temporarily.
Outgoing DUP leader Edwin Poots, and North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey are possibilities for the position, although Mr Storey has previously indicated he wasn’t interested.
Mr Poots, who announced he was resigning as leader after just 21 days, also seems unlikely to accept the job.
The current front-runner, until Mr Donaldson returns home, is East Antrim MLA and loyal Donaldson supporter Gordon Lyons.
A former junior minister under Ms Foster, he refused the position when offered it by Mr Poots.
Earlier this year, Mr Lyons (35) also briefly served as agriculture minister when Mr Poots stepped down for cancer surgery and recuperation. If nominated, he would overtake Mr Givan (39) to become Stormont’s youngest ever first minister.
Mr Donaldson will divide the three other ministries – education, agriculture and economy – to reflect the three-way split in the party between his supporters, the Poots’ camp, and those in the middle.
Mr Poots had faced criticism for a lack of bridge-building and inclusivity in his choices.
Michelle McIlveen, who represents the middle section in the party, is likely to remain as education minister in Mr Donaldson’s team. Either Mr Poots will remain in agriculture, or Paul Frew – his former campaign manager – will stay in economy. Whichever position is vacated will be filled by a Donaldson-supporting MLA.
Nominations for the DUP leadership opened on Saturday and close at noon tomorrow.
Mr Donaldson is expected to be the only candidate as the party opts for a coronation, rather than a contest, in an attempt to heal after two months of bitter division.
The new leader will be ratified at a meeting of the party executive on Saturday.