Givan says Sir Jeffrey Donaldson will have his full support as DUP leader
Northern Ireland’s new First Minister, Paul Givan, has said that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson will have his full support if he becomes leader of the DUP.
The backing comes as Sir Jeffrey is set to announce a fresh bid to become the next party leader.
The Lagan Valley MP is not expected to be opposed following a bruising party leadership contest last month.
Mr Givan was appointed as First Minister last week, in a move which led to a party revolt and the resignation of Edwin Poots as leader after just three weeks in the post.
It was prompted by his decision to press ahead with reconstituting the Stormont Executive alongside Sinn Fein, despite a significant majority of his MPs and MLAs being vociferously opposed to the move
Undeterred by the political turmoil, Mr Givan, a close ally of Mr Poots, was taking part in his first official event as First Minister on Monday, a visit to the mental health charity Pips Suicide Prevention Ireland in Belfast.
When asked about the prospect of Sir Jeffrey taking over the party, Mr Givan said: “Jeffrey Donaldson has been a very close personal friend of mine for many years, a constituency colleague; as we all know, we share an office together and Jeffrey is a formidable politician, one who has a lot to offer Northern Ireland.
“I have spoken to Jeffrey Donaldson over the weekend, I have encouraged him to put his name forward, if he does he will have my full support.”
However, Mr Givan would not comment on when he would leave the First Minister post.
It is understood that he has been urged to resign when the DUP puts a new leader in place.
He said: “What I am focused on is meeting the needs which are important to people, my own personal feelings are secondary to the needs of Northern Ireland. I have a responsibility as First Minster to the country.”
Nominations for the new DUP leader opened on Saturday and are to close at noon on Tuesday.
The next leader will be ratified by the DUP’s central executive committee on Saturday.
It comes following a turbulent two months for the DUP that saw former leader Arlene Foster resign after an internal heave against her and her successor Mr Poots follow suit after just three weeks in the post.
Once Mr Givan resigns, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill will also be removed from her post, triggering a seven-day period during which new office holders must be nominated or a fresh Assembly election will be called.
Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy said his party has no demands before renominating a deputy First Minister.
There is speculation the DUP may demand action from the UK Government over the Northern Ireland Protocol before nominating a new First Minister.
Mr Murphy described the DUP as “being at a crossroads”.
“They have to decide whether they want to be in a working Executive with the rest of us on the basis that they agreed to as a party – they signed up to this – or they want to frustrate things and prevent things, and create a very difficult working arrangement and ultimately threaten the future of the institutions,” he told BBC Radio Ulster
Mr Murphy denied his party had made additional demands over Irish language legislation last week to nominate Ms O’Neill as deputy First Minister.
He said the party was “staying faithful” to the New Decade New Approach deal.
Sir Jeffrey narrowly lost to Mr Poots in the first leadership contest in the DUP’s history.
Chastened by that bruising campaign, the party hierarchy’s preference is for an uncontested appointment this time round, though it remains to be seen whether Sir Jeffrey will face any challengers.
On Monday, Paul Bell, a member of the DUP in Co Fermanagh – who dramatically announced his intention to resign from the party over the treatment of Mrs Foster, indicated he will remain in anticipation of Sir Jeffrey becoming party leader and First Minister.
He also told UTV that he wants Mrs Foster to play a “major role” in the party again.
During the last campaign, Sir Jeffrey vowed to quit as an MP in Westminster to return to the Assembly and take up the role of First Minister.
If that were to happen, it would mean a Westminster by-election in Lagan Valley, a seat held by Sir Jeffrey since 1997.
One possibility is that he could seek to replace Mrs Foster as the MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone when she steps down.
However, with the DUP currently in such turmoil there are doubts whether the party would want to voluntarily trigger a by-election in Lagan Valley anytime soon.
Sir Jeffrey’s commanding 19,000-vote majority in Lagan Valley in the 2017 general election was trimmed to 6,000 votes at the 2019 poll following a surge in support for the Alliance Party.
Another option could see Sir Jeffrey wait until just before the next Assembly election, scheduled in May 2022, before he resigns his parliamentary seat.
In that scenario, he might appoint a temporary First Minister to fill the role in the interim.