The First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, has resigned as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Her departure means a leadership election that could have significant implications for the future of Northern Ireland.

Mrs Foster resigned this week after five years leading Northern Ireland’s largest Unionist party. Her position was said to have been increasingly strained after the DUP failed to stop the creation of a customs border in the Irish Sea, particularly following loyalist rioting earlier this year. The DUP had seen poor election results in the 2019 general election and faced increasingly negative polling for upcoming elections to the devolved assembly. However, the final straw appears to have been her decision to abstain on rather than vote against a motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly to ban conversion therapy. This decision is said to have been what finally convinced the socially conservative DUP base that a change in leadership was necessary.

The DUP now faces only the third leadership change in its history after its foundation by Ian Paisley in 1971 and possibly its first leadership election, with Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster chosen without an election. Early frontrunners include Edwin Poots, the current Agriculture Minister, Jeffrey Donaldson, the Party leader in the House of Commons, and Gavin Robinson, the MP for East Belfast. The election is seen as a battle over the future of the DUP between its moderate and conservative wings.

Edwin Poots is the current frontrunner as the only announced candidate. A long-time DUP figure, his father was a founding member of the DUP. He is viewed as representative of the more socially conservative wing of the DUP. As Health Minister he fought a legal battle through the courts in an attempt to maintain a ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. He is also known for holding creationist views, stating that “My view on the earth is that it’s a young earth. My view is 4,000 BC [was when the world was created]”. His election may also have implications for power-sharing at a time when many Unionists are increasingly frustrated. He has previously said that “I hold my nose” when working with Sinn Fein. Poots also faced accusations of sectarianism in 2020 for claiming nationalist areas had higher Coronavirus rates than unionist areas. 

Jeffrey Donaldson is seen as the more moderate candidate. Like Mrs Foster, he was formerly a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, working as Enoch Powell’s constituency agent in 1983 before serving as an MLA during the 1990s Peace Process. However, he ultimately left the UUP after clashing with the party leadership over his opposition to the Good Friday Agreement, eventually defecting to the DUP in 2004. He then took part in the negotiating team that ultimately agreed to the St Andrews Agreement, which brought the DUP into a power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein. He has led the DUP at Westminster since 2019.

Gavin Robinson is the MP for East Belfast and is part of a younger generation in the DUP at 36 years old. A former Barrister, he was elected as MP for East Belfast in 2015 and is viewed as a rising star. However, the BBC journalist Stephen Nolan has reported Mr Robinson will not be running for leader.

The election, which has barely begun, is already becoming increasingly bitter. Arlene Foster reportedly informed her constituency association she will consider resigning from the DUP and commented that “some people are seeking to drag the party back to 1972”. The former leader Peter Robinson warned a change in DUP leadership “must not mean ditching everything … it has become” and that if the party “take the wrong course” then “the Union will be in peril”. Gavin Robinson and his wife have criticised what they allege to be a misogynistic campaign being waged against her on social media from within the DUP.

The Oxford Blue has spoken to Sam McBride, the political editor of the Belfast Newsletter. Mr McBride told us: “The DUP is a party at a crossroads. It has lost much of its identity and its sense of what it stands for. The new leader will have to recover that while facing unprecedented challenges – the weakening of the Union through the Irish Sea border, a steady drop in the unionist vote in elections, the growing threat of a border poll and an increasingly serious campaign for a united Ireland. This is ultimately about much more than Arlene Foster or whoever succeeds her – this is about the future of the United Kingdom. If the next leader of unionism fails as spectacularly as Arlene Foster, there is likely to be little to salvage for unionism”.

The election is thus of major importance for the DUP. The party is being squeezed in opinion polls, both by the centre-ground Alliance party and the more hard-line party Traditional Unionist Voice, which opposes power-sharing. A new leader faces an impossible balance between winning younger and more liberal voters and retaining its conservative and loyalist base. The party faces intense pressure from supporters on the Irish Sea border issue. However, it is unclear what more a new leader can do to dismantle a border created by an agreement between the British government and the European Union. Some members have called for the party to collapse the power-sharing institutions in protest. There is also growing discussion of a potential referendum on a United Ireland. The stage thus seems set for a dramatic period in Northern Ireland politics.

The DUP MLA Christopher Stalford has been contacted for comment.

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