LONDON – A 39-year-old lawmaker is set to become Northern Ireland's youngest first minister, following an internal party revolt that led to the ousting of the leader who played a major role during the Brexit dramas of the past few years.
Paul Givan, who has a reputation as a social and religious conservative, was nominated Tuesday for the top job in the Northern Ireland Assembly by Edwin Poots, the recently elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.
The new ministerial team is set to be in place Monday following a formal renomination process. The British government retains an array of powers affecting Northern Ireland, but the Belfast assembly can make laws in a wide range of areas, including agriculture, education and health.
“There is a huge responsibility that comes with this position, particularly in serving the people of Northern Ireland as we come through the COVID pandemic," Givan said.
Both Givan and Poots, a former communities minister, are in the more conservative wing of the DUP. In February, for example, Poots proposed a new law to prevent abortions from being carried out in Northern Ireland in cases of non-fatal disabilities.
Party divisions came to the fore this year with the effective ousting of First Minister Arlene Foster following weeks of pressure related to her handling of Brexit and her perceived softening on social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights.
Poots won a two-person contest last month to lead the DUP, the senior partner in the Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government in Belfast. He thanked Foster for her “excellent work."
Poots broke with tradition by deciding to not take up the post of first minister himself. Poots, who will retain his position as agriculture minister, said he wants to concentrate his energy on rebuilding and reforming the DUP following a period of rising discontent and division.
Early indications are that the tensions remain. Outgoing economy minister Diane Dodds said it was “regrettable” that the new team “does not match the rhetoric about healing and bringing the party together.”
The party, which is rooted in the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church, opposed Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord. It later became reconciled to it and has shared power with the Irish Republican Army-linked party Sinn Fein.
The power-sharing relationship has often been strained, but it is Britain’s economic split from the European Union at the end of 2020 that has really shaken the political balance in Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K. where some people identify as British and some as Irish.
Post-Brexit trade rules have imposed customs and border checks on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. angering Northern Ireland’s British unionists, who say the new checks amount to a border in the Irish Sea and weaken ties with the rest of the U.K.
Tensions over the new rules contributed to a week of street violence in Northern Ireland cities in April that saw youths pelt police with bricks, fireworks and firebombs.
Foster faced the wrath of party members for backing the Brexit divorce agreement that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck with the EU. She quit amid a party push to oust her.
U.S. President Joe Biden, who is set to attend the Group of Seven leaders' summit in Cornwall, England, this weekend, has raised concerns over the mounting tensions in Northern Ireland and urged all sides to respect the basis of 1998 peace agreement.