LONDON (AP) — A 39-year-old lawmaker is set to become Northern Ireland's youngest first minister, replacing the politician from the same party who had been in the post since 2015 and through the Brexit dramas of the past few years.
Paul Givan, a former communities minister,, was nominated for the top job in the Northern Ireland Assembly by the recently elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. The new DUP leader, Edwin Poots, unveiled his team on Tuesday.
The two longtime allies are set to take up their posts on 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," Givan said.
Both Givan and Poots are considered religious conservatives whose views are at odds with more moderate members of the DUP. The party divisions came to the fore this year, notably 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 retain his position as agriculture minister instead of taking up the post of first minister himself. He 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 within the DUP remain after Poots announced the members of his team. 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, and the Belfast administration was suspended for almost three years beginning in 2017 after it collapsed over a botched green energy project.
However, 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. The arrangement was designed to avoid checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an EU member, because an open Irish border has helped underpin the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
The new arrangements have angered Northern Ireland’s British unionists, who say the new checks amount to a border in the Irish Sea, weaken ties with the rest of the U.K. and could bolster calls for Irish reunification.
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.
Pan Pylas, The Associated Press