Taoiseach pays tribute to Foster’s ‘courage’ as a political leader

Arlene Foster to step down as Northern Ireland’s First Minister and DUP leader

Arlene Foster outside Stormont,  on January 11th, 2016,  when she was  newly appointed First Minister of Northern Ireland. Photograph: Paul Faith / AFP

Arlene Foster outside Stormont, on January 11th, 2016, when she was newly appointed First Minister of Northern Ireland. Photograph: Paul Faith / AFP

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The Taoiseach on Wednesday night paid tribute to the “courage” shown by Arlene Foster as a political leader following her announcement on Wednesday that she is to step down as the North’s First Minister and leader of the DUP.

Ms Foster’s decision came after a significant majority of her party’s Assembly members and MPs signed a letter of no confidence in her leadership.

It followed mounting discontent, particularly among the grassroots, over Ms Foster’s leadership amid unionist and loyalist anger over the Irish Sea economic border and internal tensions between traditionalists and those with more moderate views.

Micheál Martin praised Ms Foster’s role in “guiding” the North through the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the “strong message” she sent to women as the first female First Minister and first female leader of the DUP “about what can be achieved in and through politics”.

They had, he said, enjoyed a “positive working relationship... I valued the constructive engagement, notwithstanding our differences, we have had in our respective roles”.

President Michael D Higgins thanked Ms Foster for her “public service over many years”, acknowledged the “great demands” it placed on individuals and wished her “health and happiness in the future”.

In a lengthy statement announcing her resignation on Wednesday afternoon, Ms Foster said she would stand down as party leader on May 28th and as First Minister at the end of June.

This was to “give space” for party officers to arrange the election of a new leader and to “complete work on a number of important issues for Northern Ireland”, including the Covid-19 pandemic. “When elected, I will work with the new leader on transition arrangements,” she said.

Replacement

The focus has already turned to Ms Foster’s replacement, with some in the party understood to be in favour of separate candidates filling the roles of party leader and First Minister.

The role of First Minister must be filled by a member of the North’s Assembly, but the party leadership could be held by one of the party’s MPs.

The Minister for Agriculture, Edwin Poots MLA, is believed to be the front-runner to succeed Ms Foster, with the MPs Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Gavin Robinson also strongly in contention.

It is not clear whether there will be a leadership election, which would be the first in the DUP’s history, or if consensus might be reached behind the scenes.

Tributes were paid to Ms Foster from across the political spectrum in the North as well as in Ireland and Britain, with the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, tweeting his thanks for her “dedication to the people of Northern Ireland over many years”.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said “unionism is at a crossroads” and acknowledged it was “undoubtedly a difficult day” for Ms Foster.

She said her party wanted to work with the DUP “in a spirit of generosity and respect”, which meant a commitment and a willingness to powersharing in the North, to engagement with the North-South Ministerial Council, and “respecting diversity and delivering the agreed Acht Gaeilge”.

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