In a surprise to many in London, and fewer in Belfast, this week Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster announced her plans to stand down, as both First Minister and DUP leader.
Foster, long embattled and with dwindling supporters, found her position untenable after being left hanging out to dry by Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the Northern Ireland Protocol, with a divergence of trading arrangements for Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK anathema to the DUP. Having campaigned heartily for Brexit, the ramifications were too much for Foster to navigate, with widespread unhappiness from both assembly members and party faithful against a backdrop of loyalist unrest that has haunted Northern Ireland in recent weeks and months. With the DUP blocking Theresa May’s Brexit deal – which would have kept the entire UK in the customs union – unionists in Northern Ireland were left immeasurably worse off by May’s successor, despite assurances made by Johnson directly to the party that he would secure an improved deal. She became the First Minister who allowed Westminster to create a border in the Irish Sea.
But the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland – already disastrous enough for unionists – has not been the only issue the party has had with its leader. There has increasingly been a view that she is too weak, including in dealing with her colleagues who flaunt the party line. Her failure to side with the hard-line of her party on some social issues has also put her out of step with many, including most recently abstaining on a vote to ban gay conversion therapy although most of the DUP opposed. Despite her long tenure in the party, as a former defector from the UUP there has also been some suspicion from hardliners that she isn’t truly one of them. In reality, a lukewarm premiership marred by the green energy scandal that cost NI its devolved institutions for three years was only really saved by the DUP holding the balance of power in Westminster in 2017, following Theresa May’s dismal showing in the general election and loss of her majority.
So, what does this mean for Northern Ireland, and the UK more broadly? For starters, the race to replace Foster will begin to heat up, with Edwin Poots – a hardliner and evangelical in the Ian Paisley mould who believes the earth is 6,000 years old – already emerging as a frontrunner. A rival to Poots would be another former UUP man in Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s longest serving MP, or member of the younger generation Gavin Robinson, the only DUP MP in Belfast which otherwise elected nationalists at the last general election.
Should Poots win – or any other successor who learns from Foster’s missteps – the Northern Ireland protocol will almost certainly be made much harder to manage. Poots, who described the protocol as “irrational, oppressive and burdensome”, as agriculture minister stirred up fears of border trouble by ordering agricultural inspectors to stand down in the face of (unverified) attacks at ports. He blocked recruitment of further customs staff and sought to halt the building of new port inspection facilities. With elections to Stormont taking place next year, the next First Minister will be very much incentivised to undermine the protocol as much as possible. In response to this the Government is already urging the EU to loosen the protocol, including on supermarket food exports from Britain and customs declaration.
The future of the party is unclear. The runners and riders to replace her are lining up. As Field wrote just three weeks ago, political leadership across both unionist and nationalist sides is sorely lacking, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The future of Northern Ireland, and of the UK, depends on statesmanship that hasn’t been seen for some time.