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'A difficult day': Reaction as Arlene Foster announces she is to step down as leader of the DUP

There has been growing discontentment over Foster’s handling of Brexit and the NI Protocol.

Updated Apr 28th 2021, 6:35 PM

ARLENE FOSTER IS to step down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

The announcement came after reports that a significant majority of elected DUP representatives in the Stormont Assembly and House of Commons had signed a letter of no confidence in Foster’s leadership.

There has been growing discontentment with Foster’s handling of Brexit negotiations and the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“A short time ago I called the Party Chairman to inform him that I intend to step down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party on the twenty-eighth of May and as First Minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June,” she said. 

“It is important to give space over the next few weeks for the Party Officers to make arrangements for the election of a new leader. When elected I will work with the new leader on transition arrangements.”

Source: Democratic Unionist Party/YouTube

Foster continued: “It has been the privilege of my life to serve the people of Northern Ireland as their First Minister and to represent my home constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone.  I first entered the Assembly in 2003 and undoubtedly the journey of the last eighteen years has been memorable.  There are many people who have helped and supported me throughout that period and I will always been grateful for the kindness and support shown to me by them.

“Whilst there have been many difficult and testing times for the Executive it remains my firm view that Northern Ireland has been better served having local Ministers at this time.  It is unthinkable that we could have faced into the Coronavirus pandemic without our own devolved Ministers in place and no Ministerial direction for Departments.

“As I prepare to depart the political stage 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.  That will require continued hard work and real determination and courage on all sides.

“Whilst the focus is on me today I recognise that will pass. For me my decision to enter politics was never about party or person, it was about speaking up for the voiceless and building a Northern Ireland which could prosper and be at peace within the United Kingdom.”

Following Foster’s announcement, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, the Deputy First Minister, said: “I have worked alongside Arlene Foster this past year in what has been a difficult and challenging time for everyone with the unexpected onset of the Covid pandemic.

“Throughout the pandemic I acknowledge the efforts Arlene Foster has made as First Minister, and the service that she has given in working with the rest of the Executive as we have battled the biggest health crisis in a generation.

It is now a matter for the DUP to choose a replacement. The incoming DUP leader should recognise that the political landscape across our island has changed.

“The broad community are impatient for social reform and political change which reflects a modern and progressive society where everyone can feel that they belong on an equal basis.”

The DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds tweeted: “Arlene has dedicated her life to defending the Union and moving Northern Ireland forward. She has demonstrated great courage and is an example for women in public life.

“Thank you Arlene. It’s been a privilege to work alongside you.”

Foster has been First Minister of Northern Ireland’s Executive since January 2016, with Martin McGuinness as the Executive’s Deputy First Minister until 2017 and Michelle O’Neill in the role since 2020.

Foster has been the leader of the DUP since 2015.

northern-ireland-unrest Foster answers questions on her leadership during a visit to the Hammer Youth Centre, in Belfast yesterday. Source: PA

One of the issues mentioned as being an instigator for the no-confidence heave of Foster was a DUP Stormont minister attending a business meeting with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar last week.

The DUP has been boycotting north-south events in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

Earlier, a DUP Minister viewed as a potential successor to Foster pulled out of a scheduled North-South meeting with his Irish Government counterpart, Charlie McConalogue.

The move by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, who is believed to be more hardline than Foster, comes amid calls from some sections of unionism for the DUP to end participation in cross-border political structures while Brexit’s Irish Sea border remains in place.

Internal critics of Foster, many of whom signed a letter of no confidence in her leadership, are pressing for the party to adopt a more robust approach in opposing the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs the new post-Brexit trading arrangements.

In that context, some are interpreting Poots’ no-show as a signal of intent amid the escalating leadership crisis in the DUP.

Political reaction 

The Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the President have all released statements following the news of Foster’s impending exit. 

Micheál Martin extended his best wishes to Foster, with whom he said he had a good relationship.

“The re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2020 with Arlene Foster as First Minister and Michelle O’Neill as deputy First Minister was a key development in supporting peace and stability for all the people of these islands.

“As the first female leader of the DUP and the first female First Minister of Northern Ireland, working alongside the deputy First Minister, she sent a strong message to women about what can be achieved in and through politics,” Martin said. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar echoed this sentiment and said he was “very sorry” to hear she was stepping down from her role. 

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“Her closing statement today really resonated with me – this understanding we must have that people in Northern Ireland are Irish, British, Northern Irish, or a mixture of all these things, and that we have to be generous to each other and understand each other,” he said.

Michael D Higgins this evening added: “Serving in public life makes great demands on individuals, which is important to acknowledge. May I thank Arlene Foster for her public service over many years and wish her health and happiness in the future.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said today was “undoubtedly a very difficult one” for Foster and her family and she extended her regards to her.

However, McDonald said the DUP now has an important job of electing its new leader and delivering on promises made in the past. 

She said: “The DUP now begins the process of electing a new party leader. We want to work with them in a spirit of generosity and respect.

“Unionism is at a crossroads. The inbuilt unionist majority is now a thing of the past.

“Progressive social changes such as marriage equality are happening. Brexit and Covid-19 are also driving the politics of change. There is no going back.”

Contains reporting by Press Association, Cónal Thomas and Garreth MacNamee

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