Northern Ireland first minister and PM’s policy chief both resign

Published by Scott Challinor on February 4th 2022, 12:00am

A fresh political crisis has been triggered in Northern Ireland as first minister, Paul Givan, announced his resignation on Thursday. Elsewhere, prime minister Boris Johnson’s head of policy, Munira Mirza, has stepped down over remarks made by the PM toward Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer.

Given the nature of the power-sharing Stormont Executive in Northern Ireland, the deputy first minister, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, will also leave her position following Givan's departure.

Givan told reporters: “Today marks the end of what has been the privilege of my lifetime, to serve as the first minister of Northern Ireland.

“Our institutions are being tested once again, and the delicate balance created by the Belfast and St Andrew's Agreements has been impacted by the agreement made by the United Kingdom and the European Union which created the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“The consent principle is a cornerstone of the Belfast Agreement and it is my earnest desire that all sections of the community will soon be able to give consent to the restoration of a fully functioning executive through a resolution to the issues that have regrettably brought us to this point.”

Givan’s resignation comes as part of a protest against the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol by the Democratic Unionist Party [DUP].

The Protocol, which has been the subject of intense negotiations between the UK and the EU in recent weeks, means that Northern Ireland still remains within the EU single market for goods and abides by some of the bloc's rules.

This has impeded trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with goods being subject to checks and effectively creating a border in the Irish Sea. This has angered unionists who feel that the current situation in Northern Ireland undermines its place in the UK.

As an act of opposition to the Protocol, DUP minister Edwin Poots had ordered on Wednesday night that checks at Northern Ireland’s ports should be halted from 00:01 GMT on Thursday, after he had sought legal advice. Downing Street, however, indicated that the checks would continue to take place.

Now, Givan’s resignation has taken the unionist protest even further, but a complete collapse of the assembly will be avoided thanks to legislation currently going through Westminster.

The new legislation will allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to continue for an initial six weeks, with the option of extending the grace period to 24 or 48 weeks. Significant executive decisions, however, will not be able to be taken without a first and deputy first minister.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has labelled the DUP’s move “stunt politics” and declared that the assembly election should be brought forward from May 2022.

In Westminster, Munira Mirza, Boris Johnson’s head of policy, has resigned over comments made by the prime minister in the House of Commons about Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during his stint as director of public prosecutions.

The prime minister suggested that Sir Keir had instead pursued legal action against journalists and in so doing failed to prosecute serial sex offender, Jimmy Savile.

The claim has since been debunked, but it has been greeted by anger and surprise from MPs on both sides of the Commons.

While the prime minister toned back on his comments on Thursday, saying that Sir Keir had “nothing to do personally with those decision”, Johnson’s lack of apology was enough to drive his policy chief to quit.

In her resignation letter, Mirza wrote: “You are a better man than many of your detractors will ever understand, which is why it is so desperately sad that you let yourself down by making a scurrilous accusation against the leader of the opposition.”

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Scott Challinor
Business Editor
February 4th 2022, 12:00am

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