BELFAST: Brexit hardliner Paul Givan was installed as Northern Ireland’s new first minister on Thursday, as Britain’s split from the European Union continues to cause friction in the bitterly divided province, reports AFP.
Givan, 39, from the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), replaced Arlene Foster after she was ousted by colleagues for appearing too soft in her opposition to a controversial post-Brexit “protocol” governing Northern Irish trade.
Michelle O’Neill, from the pro-Ireland Sinn Fein party, was reconfirmed as deputy first minister after the British government intervened to help ease issues renewing power-sharing and avert a snap election.
In his maiden speech Givan failed to mention the protocol, which has riled resentment among unionists for effectively keeping Northern Ireland inside the EU customs union and single market for goods since the start of the year.
The discontent fuelled a week of rioting in April which spread from unionist communities into pro-Ireland nationalist enclaves and saw at least 88 police injured.
Under the leadership of Edwin Poots—who replaced Foster as DUP leader—Givan is expected to ramp up rhetoric against the protocol, as Northern Ireland braces for the summer season when sectarian marches occur and tensions have historically boiled over.
But addressing other lawmakers in the region’s devolved Stormont assembly, Givan struck a conciliatory tone.
“We must all recognise that there is much more that we have in common than separates us,” he said.
However, O’Neill warned Sinn Fein “will not share common ground on the issue of Brexit”.
She said the protocol is “a consequence” of Britain’s split from the EU, which the DUP “championed”.
Northern Ireland was the site of “The Troubles” sectarian conflict which saw 3,500 killed by bombs and bullets as pro-UK unionists, pro-Ireland nationalists and British security forces waged battle over the territory.
Under the terms of a 1998 power-sharing peace deal unionists and nationalists must govern in tandem, and the confirmation of new ministers averts an immediate political crisis as Northern Ireland struggles to adjust to the new post-Brexit trading regime.
Filling the top two jobs for the devolved executive had been delayed by disagreement over long-stalled Irish language legislation—a persistent source of contention.
Sinn Fein had refused to nominate a deputy first minister unless the DUP made commitments over the law, raising the prospect of a snap election.
However, following late night talks Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the parties had agreed a deal after he committed to passing the legislation in London if the assembly in Belfast fails to do so by the autumn.