Arlene Foster has announced that she will be standing down as DUP leader on the 28 May and First Minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June, bowing to the inevitable after the arithmetic suggested that 80 per cent of her Stormont and Westminster colleagues were set against her leadership continuing.
This will be welcomed by those who in recent days orchestrated manoeuvres against her; Foster staging a defiant last stand had the potential to turn the leadership election poisonous very quickly, which was the last thing the embattled party needs.
Who would honestly want to replace Foster now, such is the troubling in-tray she is handing over to her successor? The challenge is two-fold in advance of 2022’s Assembly election. First, retain the support of those who believe the party has betrayed Unionism by failing to prevent the introduction of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Second, regain the support of that unaligned chunk of the electorate who previously lent them their vote come polling day, who have now been put off by the party’s attitude and vote Alliance, Ulster Unionist or not at all. Failure to achieve these two aims could allow Sinn Fein to become the largest party, a doomsday scenario.
Studies, particularly after the 2019 general election, have shown that the latter, more moderate bloc is numerically more significant than the former. Yet based on the mood music over the past 24 hours, it is likely that the concerns of the base will determine the trajectory the party pursues. For example, reports in the Northern Irish press claim some DUP politicians are fearful of being on the receiving end of abuse when their Orange lodges convene for the summer marching season.
The early front-runner is Edwin Poots, the Stormont agriculture minister hewn from solid DUP stock. His father Charlie was close to Ian Paisley when the party was formed in the white heat of the early 1970s. His refusal to attend a meeting of the North South Ministerial Council scheduled earlier today suggests a leadership tilt is in the offing. In Ulster Scots patois, Poots is a ‘thrawn’ or ‘awkward’ customer.
Despite being the minister responsible for implementing some of the more obvious elements of the Protocol, including customs installations at Northern Ireland’s ports, he has been smart enough to make it clear through his public utterances over recent months that he has only done so under duress from above.
There are suggestions he could be part of a somewhat convoluted double act, whereby he serves as first minister and another figure, such as the MP Jeffrey Donaldson, is party leader. Whether this is a ruse to keep everyone with notions of leadership happy will play out in the coming days, but it seems obviously unworkable.
2021 was meant to be a gala year for Unionists in Northern Ireland; the centenary of the Province’s foundation should have demonstrated that despite the relentless terrorist assaults and indifference from Westminster that it has faced for most of its lifetime, it hadn’t gone away.
Instead, its largest party has set up a circular firing squad for the whole world to see. All the while, the DUP’s hold on the thing they value most dearly is looking increasingly weak, largely through their own missteps.
When Foster took over in 2016 and led the DUP to a triumph at that year’s Assembly election, she had genuine opportunity to chart a new course for Unionism. Her response to the Renewable Heating Initiative scandal tha put devolution in cold storage between 2017 and early 2020 and the mishandling of Brexit put an end to that very quickly.
In an acknowledgement of that lost opportunity, her resignation statement concludes with the following warning to her successor: ‘It is my view that if Northern Ireland is to prosper then it will only do so built on the foundations of successful and durable devolution.’ Whether that advice is taken on board or not will have major consequences.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.