Democratic Unionist Party leader Edwin Poots has resigned after just 20 days in the job.
Mr Poots was forced out by a revolt among his party’s MPs and MLAs over a deal struck in the early hours of Thursday to allow the creation of a new power-sharing executive at Stormont.
His nominee for first minister Paul Givan was installed at the head of the new executive, with Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as deputy, despite an overwhelming vote by DUP representatives against putting forward a candidate.
But Mr Poots later went into a meeting of the party’s officers, which ended with a statement announcing the end of his leadership, less than three weeks after he was ratified as leader on 28 May.
In his statement, Mr Poots said: “I have asked the party chairman to commence an electoral process within the party to allow for a new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party to be elected.
“The party has asked me to remain in post until my successor is elected.
“This has been a difficult period for the party and the country and I have conveyed to the chairman my determination to do everything I can to ensure both unionism and Northern Ireland is able to move forward to a stronger place.”
A Sinn Fein spokesperson said: “Sinn Fein has worked for weeks to bring stability to the executive. We have monumental challenges ahead that will require unity of purpose and urgency. They include tackling the totally unacceptable hospital waiting lists that have left people crucified, in pain and without hope. That is our focus and should remain the focus of all ministers in the executive.”
The resignation of Mr Poots will raise question marks over Mr Givan’s position, with senior DUP MP Sammy Wilson saying: “If Edwin is no longer leader, then whoever did become leader would have the choice of the first minister.”
And it throws the power-sharing arrangements into crisis, with doubts over whether a new executive can be formed.
Mr Wilson and fellow-MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson – who was beaten by just two votes by Mr Poots in the race to replace Arlene Foster in May – were being tipped in Belfast as possible successors.
During his time as leader, the former agriculture minister won headlines outside Northern Ireland largely for his creationist view that the world is just 6,000 years old.
The dramatic sequence of events which led to Mr Poots’ ousting began with an announcement by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis around 1am on Thursday that the UK government would put legislation protecting the Irish language through the Westminster parliament if Stormont failed to make it law by September.
The language issue had threatened to block the restoration of power-sharing, with Sinn Féin making clear it would not renominate Ms O’Neill to her former position unless the DUP agreed to press ahead with legislation which was promised in an earlier agreement but has not yet been delivered.
But by the morning, a revolt was brewing, with a letter from all but one of the unionist party’s MPs and all of its representatives in the House of Lords voicing disquiet and demanding an urgent meeting with the leader.
Mr Poots and Mr Givan attended a meeting of DUP MLAs and MPs, but are understood to have left before a vote in which those present are believed to have voted 24-4 against the decision to nominate a first minister.
The atmosphere at the meeting was described by party sources as “dreadful, utterly dreadful” and “bedlam”. Another said: “The meeting was in total disarray.”
And following Mr Givan’s installation, rumours began to spread of proposals for a vote of no confidence in Mr Poots.
Amid the turmoil, former leader Ms Foster seemingly took delight in trolling the man who forced her out of power, tweeting about her “lovely lunch” at a Belfast restaurant and adding: “Hope everyone is having a great day this lovely sunny afternoon.”
The new leader – who beat Sir Jeffrey by 19 votes to 17 in the race to replace Ms Foster on 14 May and took office as first minister on 28 May – later arrived at DUP headquarters for a meeting with party officers.
Arriving at the meeting, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said that any leader who does not have the support of party officers will “find it very difficult” to stay in their position.
“You cannot lead people who are not following you. If you have no followers, you can’t be a leader, can you?” he said.
Explaining the reasons for the rebellion, Mr Wilson said: “The one thing I can tell you is that there is no appetite for a situation where we have an Assembly which can have its powers stripped from it by the secretary of state at a whim simply because Sinn Féin demand that they get something that they can’t persuade others in the assembly to deliver for them.”
Sinn Féin MLA Chris Hazzard tweeted following Mr Poots’ resignation: “Important to remember that the DUP are imploding due to very reasonable language rights being secured 15years after they were first promised by a British government and 15 months after the DUP themselves agreed to legislate.”