The new DUP leader is on course to finally get his man over the line as First Minister today, but he is paying a much higher price for it than he will have reckoned when he set out to topple Arlene Foster.
The only positive for him from the deal announced early today to save Stormont is that he avoids an autumn election. In every other respect, it’s a disaster and shows the law of unintended consequences following the Poots’ putsch.
Irish language legislation that wouldn’t have happened in the current mandate had Foster remained in power, will now be introduced by Westminster in October. If Mary Lou McDonald is right, then language commissioners will be in place by March 2022, just weeks before the DUP faces an Assembly poll.
Already angry over the Irish Sea border, loyalists now have looming Irish language legislation to shout and protest about as the marching season approaches.
It’s not as if Edwin Poots hadn’t enough on his plate with deep internal party divisions, potentially more resignations, and protocol problems.
He has been weakened even further by the government’s pledge to introduce an Acht na Gaeilge. His supporters will be hoping that he’s secured something in return from Brandon Lewis.
The DUP has already lost significant ground to the TUV, and it’s hard to see it not losing more now. Jim Allister will have a field day with this latest development. Hardcore DUP voters will question the point of devolution when Westminster goes over the head of Stormont so readily nowadays.
The Irish language joins abortion and same-sex marriage as the trio of issues on which the DUP has been absolutely out-manoeuvred. The argument it’s long made to its ultra-traditional base – that it must “hold its nose” to go into government with Sinn Fein in order to keep a liberal agenda at bay – holds little sway now.
Sinn Fein was dealt a strong hand ... and it played those cards skilfully.
Foster wanted to uphold the language commitments made in New Decade, New Approach, but she failed to get it past her party. DUP sources at the time said there was no chance of that changing in advance of next May’s Assembly election.
While Sinn Fein was frustrated, it would never have moved to collapse the Executive. Doing so would have been too extreme a move for which it would have copped all the blame. But when the need arose to renominate O’Neill following Foster’s resignation, the party grasped an opportunity it never thought it would have.
Sinn Fein was dealt a strong hand courtesy of the coup which ousted Arlene, and it played those cards skilfully.
Poots personally has no problem with Irish language legislation. Of all the members of previous DUP talks’ teams, he was the one regarded as the most willing to compromise on the issue.
But the wider party never shared his relaxed attitude and, in order to secure support for his leadership bid, he promised individual MLAs that he wouldn’t deliver on the New Decade, New Approach pledges before the May election.
Poots will be hoping that the DUP has reached its lowest point, and the only way is up.
His failure to foresee Downing Street intervening leaves him vulnerable to the claim of tactical ineptitude.
The fact that, in these circumstances, he is still putting forward Paul Givan as First Minister indicates that he can live with what the government has done. He doesn’t really have a choice not to. Had he failed to nominate, the ensuing October election would have decimated the DUP.
With his Stormont ministerial team fully in place, Poots will be aiming to start rapidly reversing his fortunes . He will be hoping that the DUP has reached its lowest point, and the only way is up.
He will want his ministers to start setting the news agenda with their actions and achievements. He will pray the controversy over Arlene Foster’s brutal removal fades from the public memory.
He has just over 10 months to turn it around. His First Minister will play a crucial role in all this. While Poots will focus on internal party organisation in preparation for the election, it will be Givan to the fore in the public eye.
He is massively capable and a more natural media performer than his party leader. He has experience as both a minister and a special adviser in several departments. But it’s still an incredibly heavy weight falling on his shoulders. He has little room to make mistakes as he settles down to work with O’Neill in Stormont Castle.
The new DUP leader is further disadvantaged in that good news announcements will likely be few and far between for a ministerial team grappling with the challenges of emerging from lockdown.
If a third wave of Covid hits, agreeing a way forward with Sinn Fein could prove extremely tricky. Internal party tensions could also emerge as Economy Minister Paul Frew has been an outspoken critic of coronavirus restrictions.
The DUP under Foster faced political difficulties in April. Two months on, they’ve multiplied massively – putting the party in a precarious position. Edwin Poots is learning the hard way that a leadership change can be dangerous, very dangerous.