The DUP will force an Assembly election in the autumn unless there is significant change in the plans to bring in Irish language laws.
enior sources within the party told Sunday Life last night that the new leader, who looks set to be Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, won’t nominate a first minister unless a new deal is reached.
That would collapse the Executive and set the clock ticking for Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to call an election.
It follows an unprecedented week for the party which saw Edwin Poots resign as leader just 34 days since his election to the post.
The Lagan Valley MLA faced a huge backlash from within the party when he agreed to nominate Paul Givan as first minister hours after a deal which saw Brandon Lewis agree with Sinn Fein that Westminster would bring in Irish language legislation later this year if Stormont failed to do so.
But Mr Poots did not consult with the party’s elected representatives beforehand which led to him facing a possible vote of no confidence instigated by DUP party officers following a meeting on Thursday.
“What Edwin did was extraordinary and then to have 24 of your MLAs tell you not to announce it but to go ahead anyway was crazy and meant his leadership was doomed,” said a well-placed source.
Mr Givan, who was Mr Poots’ choice for first minister, is now under massive pressure to resign the post just a day after being appointed. He has been told by party officers he will be expected to step down as part of the DUP leadership transition.
That would set the clock ticking on a seven-day deadline to nominate both a new first minister and renominate Michelle O’Neill as Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister. On Friday, Ms O’Neill urged her partners in government to “get their act together” to ensure effective governance at Stormont.
It’s understood Sir Jeffrey, MP for Lagan Valley, will announce his intention to stand for the leadership tomorrow.
The politician, who narrowly lost out to Mr Poots in last month’s leadership election by 19 votes to 17, is almost certain to be the only candidate.
During the last leadership campaign in May Sir Jeffrey vowed to quit as an MP in Westminster to return to the Assembly and take up the role of first minister. If that were to happen, it would mean a Westminster by-election in Lagan Valley, a seat held by Sir Jeffrey since 1997.
Yesterday a meeting took place of DUP party officers with chairman Lord Morrow announcing nominations for leadership candidates would close on Tuesday and the vote, if there is one, will take place next Saturday. If Sir Jeffrey is the only candidate the party executive will meet to endorse him.
He said: “In accordance with the constitution and rules of the Democratic Unionist Party only party members, who are also members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the House of Commons are entitled to vote for the leader or deputy leader.”
Our senior DUP source revealed: “Unless there is a substantial change in the Sinn Fein stance on the Irish Language laws, Jeffrey won’t nominate a first minister and we’ll have an election in September or October. That is the plan.”
Changing the deal with Sinn Fein is now seen as the only option for the DUP as Westminster has the ultimate power to pass any law for Northern Ireland. However, Sinn Fein sources said they have no intention of renegotiating legislation agreed as part of the New Decade New Approach deal which restored Stormont in January 2020.
“What was agreed with Brandon Lewis can’t be undone and they did us over on equal marriage and the NI Protocol, why not this?” explained the DUP source.
The second major challenge to the new leader is maintaining grassroots support amid the ongoing loyalist anger over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
At an anti-protocol rally in Newtownards on Friday night, TUV leader Jim Allister challenged the DUP leadership to bring down Stormont unless it is scrapped.
Mr Allister told the hundreds in attendance: “What needs to be done in Stormont is the new DUP leader needs to find a backbone, and he needs to resign the first minister.
“He needs to say to the British prime minister, there will be no first minister so long as there is a protocol.”
But a DUP source said the party’s MPs believe there is “something cooking” in the ongoing negotiations over the protocol and the Irish Sea border.
“There are good vibes coming from the Conservative party about it but will it be watered down enough to please those who want it done away entirely remains to be seen,” explained the source.
It’s also expected the new leader will offer Mr Poots the chance to stay on as agriculture minister if he wants to keep the job.
“That’s what’s he’s good at and Sir Jeffrey would be happy to keep him there,” said the source.
“Supporters of Edwin and a large number of MLAs wouldn’t necessarily be natural supporters of Jeffrey. But the events of the last week have proven that their choice was the wrong one.
“Jeffrey has a lot of work to do to unify the party and make it acceptable to the electorate again.”
It’s understood former leader Arlene Foster will still not return to front-line politics if her close ally Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is elected as the new DUP leader.
Sir Jeffrey is understood to be planning to try to persuade the former first minister to remain in the party after she announced she was planning to quit under Poots’ leadership.
But sources close to the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA say she is not changing her mind now Mr Poots is stepping down from the top post and is interested in being elevated to the House of Lords, but not as a member of the DUP.
Sir Jeffrey will ask those councillors and other party members who left after Poots’ election to return to the fold.
But a source close to Mrs Foster, who resigned as first minister last Monday, said: “She will not be going back to local politics; how could she serve alongside those who did what they did? No thanks.”
Last month she told the Financial Times she did not agree “with the direction of travel under Edwin’s leadership”.
“I think we are regressing and becoming more narrow. It’s quite nasty, frankly,” she added.