Why Paul Givan has resigned as Northern Ireland First Minister and what it means for government

By James McNaney

Northern Ireland's First Minister Paul Givan has officially resigned.

He said holding the office of First Minister had been the "privilege of his life" as he confirmed the move on Thursday.

The DUP MLA told a press conference he was stepping down from the position effective from midnight, as part of his party’s opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.The move will lead to the resignation of Michelle O'Neill as deputy first minister, given the joint nature of their office.

However, controls are being put in place to prevent the total collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive and power-sharing institutions, but decision making will be frustrated.

What is the background?

Northern Ireland's power-sharing institutions had only resumed operation in January 2020 after devolution had been suspended for three years following a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Arrangements on Northern Ireland are based on power sharing which sees a five-party coalition making up the ruling Executive.

The Sir Jeffrey Donaldson-led DUP is the biggest party, and thus holds the first minister position, with Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill holding the deputy first minister post as the largest nationalist party. The UUP, SDLP and Alliance party make up the Executive.

Paul Givan announces he is resigning from his post as Northern Ireland First Minister on Thursday.

Givan has resigned - now what?

Michelle O'Neill also loses her position as the joint nature of their office means there can be no deputy first minister without a first minister - and vice versa.

Current rules mean a seven-day period comes in for the two roles to be filled. However, a new law due to be passed in Westminster next week extends the period to at least six weeks. And it will be retrospective, meaning immediate collapse is avoided.

Previously when Sinn Fein resigned the deputy first minister position, it meant the immediate collapse of the power-sharing institutions.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson Credit: Peter Morrison/PA

Why are the DUP doing this?

The party are furious with the arrangements of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

That is the instrument agreed with the EU and UK to avoid placing a border on the island of Ireland.

Instead they have agreed to carry out checks at the ports, effectively putting a border down the Irish Sea.

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill. Credit: Pacemaker

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned in September he would collapse Stormont should their demands on the protocol not be met.

Talks are ongoing between the EU and UK on changing the protocol.

On Wednesday, the DUP's Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots announced he was stopping his department's staff from conducting the checks required under the protocol.

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Can the rest of the Executive stay running? While the first and deputy first ministers will be absent, the other ministers currently in place can stay in their role until the Assembly is dissolved for an election. So MLAs like Health Minister Robin Swann or infrastructure Minister Nicola Mallon will stay on in their jobs for at least another six weeks, under current plans.

A freight lorry leaving Belfast Port Credit: Niall Carson/PA

What happens with legislation and decisions that need to be made? While the government stays running and ministers stay in their jobs, they are severely limited in what they can do without the first ministers. The Executive would not be able to meet, and therefore wouldn’t be able to sign off on key decisions such as a proposed three-year budget.

There is also a planned official apology to be made to victims of historic institutional abuse which could not go ahead without the first ministers in place.

The Assembly can still meet and bills continue through the legislative process. It is only if the institutions collapse, should those bills that not make it through the process fall. Meaning the process has to begin from the start when power sharing resumes.

So will the election still be in May, or earlier? An Assembly election election is planned for Thursday, May 5, but we could have one within weeks depending on what happens in the next week. The new law at Westminster allows for an initial period of six weeks of government without a first and deputy first minister. This six-week period can then be followed by 18 weeks of extension time. However, the Assembly can vote to not allow this, and in effect force an earlier election.

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