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.