Arlene Foster’s spell as leader of the Democratic Unionist party is over. Today, Foster announced that she is stepping down as party leader on 28 May, and resigning her position as First Minister by the end of June. Her resignation came after a letter, signed by three quarters of the party’s MLAs alongside some MPs, was submitted to its chair Lord Morrow calling for her departure. In what is the most dramatic case of unionist infighting since Foster herself helped destabilise David Trimble's leadership of the Ulster Unionists in the early 2000s, moves are also afoot to remove her erstwhile deputy Nigel Dodds. Several of her most senior advisers, including the party's chief executive and director of communications, are also facing the chop.
The catalyst behind this mutiny is supposedly Foster’s abstention on a vote last week in the Northern Ireland Assembly seeking to ban gay conversion therapy. This abstention has angered the evangelical 'Save Ulster from Sodomy' rump, which still holds sway in the party’s membership and upper echelons. This row is illustrative of how the priorities of the DUP’s membership is at odds with those members of the, contrary to common perception, diverse unionist electorate.
Constituency associations across Northern Ireland have reportedly registered their displeasure over this in recent days. There is also anger over the attendance of the economy minister Diane Dodds at a meeting of the north-south ministerial council, a body the DUP was supposedly boycotting in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol.
When looking at the charge sheet, however, the fact Foster lasted so long is remarkable given the state unionism has ended up in under her leadership. It is not unkind to say that this day was a long time coming.
The loss of the unionist majority at Stormont following the 2017 Assembly election – and the end of unionism’s equivalent hegemony among Northern Ireland’s representatives at Westminster in 2019 – were bitter blows for a political movement predicated on being just that one step ahead numerically of its opponents.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, and the sense that its introduction was a consequence of the DUP and Foster dropping the ball, is now an unshakeable one among grassroots unionists and loyalists. The fallout has figures within the party worried (correctly) about its electoral prospects; minutes leaked in March from the party’s South Antrim association speak of genuine fears of catastrophe at a council, Stormont and Westminster level unless there is 'drastic change'.
Traditional Unionist Voice, led by the outspoken former DUP MEP Jim Allister, is a ready-made vehicle for those unimpressed by the party’s constitutional backsliding under Foster. But it is unlikely they will be able to do what the DUP did to the Ulster Unionists and supplant them as the main party.
Allied to the existential crisis induced by the sea border, many unionists who will likely still vote for the Union in the event of any border poll have been put off by the party’s stance on social issues, whether they be gay marriage or abortion. These voters are now unlikely to vote DUP and have looked elsewhere. This has given a boon to the Alliance party, though their unabashed Europhilia and demands for the 'rigorous implementation' of the Protocol may temper any mass unionist drift.
This fraught balancing act – of steadying the horses while also appealing to a broader spectrum of the electorate – awaits Foster’s successor, who will be elected solely by the party’s MPs and MLAs in what will be a first ever leadership contest in the DUP’s 50 years of existence.
The moot point is whether anyone in the DUP has the heft or nous to achieve this. Given Foster’s apparent moderation is a reason for her departure, the likelihood is that a hardliner, both constitutionally and socially, will replace her. Names being bandied about include Edwin Poots, the Free Presbyterian agriculture minister who earned his stripes as a bag carrier to Ian Paisley in the 1990s (though as he is currently recovering from cancer treatment, he may decide now is not the time).
Among the party’s Westminster cadre, Jeffrey Donaldson and Sammy Wilson may consider a run, while the comparatively young MP for East Belfast, Gavin Robinson, could be an outside bet. The difficulty of 'double jobbing' from Westminster is clear, however, and given its current state, the party may not want to risk a by-election, particularly in Robinson’s seat given the strength of Alliance support there. The Westminster group’s closeness to the Brexit fiasco may also count against them.
Whoever it is, their inheritance is not a good one, and blame for that rests solely with Foster and those around her. Failure to learn from her could compound the felony; there is a genuine chance at the 2022 assembly election that the DUP could lose enough votes from the respective wings of its electorate that Sinn Fein sneaks in and becomes the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Alongside the profound challenges this would pose for the settlement in Northern Ireland itself, it would cause a headache for the governments in London and Dublin. Both would rather devote time and energy to anything but the question of Irish reunification.
Foster herself has recently spoken of her ambition to become an MP, perhaps an indication she recognised her tenure was near an end. Whatever her next move, it is unlikely the first and subsequent drafts of unionist history will be kind to its first female leader given what she has left behind.