In a surprise announcement on Wednesday, the leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Arlene Foster, announced that she will stand down as party leader on 28 May. She will also resign her position as First Minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June.
The resignation comes as a rumoured 22 of the party’s 27 MLAs, joined by four of its Westminster MPs, signed an internal letter of no-confidence against Foster and the party leadership.
Having led the party for over five years, Ms. Foster had in recent weeks faced an internal revolt against her leadership due to her Government’s handling of the Brexit process. In particular, many inside the DUP have made her perceived lack of leadership and pressure toward the EU and UK Government responsible for the effect the Northern Ireland Protocol has had on the province’s post-Brexit trading relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Ms. Forster’s announcement comes as the European Parliament formally approved the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement on Wednesday morning, narrowly averting another cliff-edge scenario and paving the way for its full implementation as of 1 May. Amidst the ongoing unrest in Northern Ireland, the shock announcement in the province’s largest unionist party presents a crossroads in which Northern Irish society can take many different paths.
Arrangements are currently being made in appointing Ms. Foster’s successor, with the party’s next leader to be decided by its MLAs and MPs in the coming days. Due to restrictive rules on double jobbing, there is considerable speculation that, whoever emerges as new DUP leader, may not be able to take up the role of First Minister. In this case, it may lead to the party adopting a similar model of leadership as their partners-in-government Sinn Féin, with one of its leader based in Westminster, while another senior party member takes the reins at Stormont Castle.
There are several potential contenders that could emerge as either DUP leader and/or First Minister following Ms. Foster’s departure, with Jeffrey Donaldson, Edwin Poots, Gavin Robinson and Sammy Wilson leading the odds. Particularly Mr. Poots is seen by many as the leading contender due to his extensive experience as a ministerial operator and his alignment towards the more religious fundamentalist wing of the party, although his current ministerial responsibilities for implementing the checks required under the Northern Ireland Protocol may damage his bid.
The DUP has never had a contested leadership election. Arlene Foster, only the third leader in the party’s history, replaced the retiring Peter Robinson unchallenged in 2015, in the same way he had succeeded party founder Ian Paisley in 2008. As of now, it is unclear if the next leader will enjoy a similar coronation, or whether there will be more than one candidate vying for the party’s top job.