Will the DUP lurch to the right following Foster’s departure?

First Minister’s successor must tread a delicate line between party’s different factions

Arlene Foster, who has led the pro-British party for over five years, is to step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister at the end of June. Video: DUP

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Is the coup within the Democratic Unionist Party that has brought down Arlene Foster a lurch by the party to the right?

She survived the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power sharing executive in 2017, the loss of the unionist majority at Stormont, and the intense scrutiny of a judicial inquiry examining her stewardship of the flawed Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. However Arlene Foster’s leadership of the DUP could not survive her decision to abstain on, rather than vote against, a Stormont motion condemning highly controversial “gay conversion” therapies. Even allowing for the Paisleyite origins of the DUP, this seemed a surprising straw to break the DUP camel’s back.

Does this presage a lurch to the right, as the party tries to reconnect with its grassroots? Maybe: a letter from DUP councillors challenging Mrs Foster’s five years of leadership demanded a “return to the unionist and Christian values of our party”. The Free Presbyterians who formed the core of the DUP founder Ian Paisley’s political base never fully trusted the Church of Ireland Fermanagh MLA when it came to issues like abortion or gay rights, suspicious that, given the chance, she would jettison the DUP’s evangelical baggage in pursuit of unionist centre ground voters. That distrust was compounded when the party which championed the “Save Ulster From Sodomy” campaign back in the 1970s returned its first openly gay councillor in the May 2019 local government elections.

But others warn that it’s incorrect to view this anti-Arlene coup as a moral crusade. One former DUP insider told me it was “disastrous” that a debate on gay conversion had proved the “final straw”, but predicted that “some of the issues used to remove Arlene will fade into irrelevance once the party works out who it wants to take things on from here”.

Another senior DUP veteran insists the pressure on the leader had been “building up for some time”, as she became increasingly detached from both her Assembly team and wider unionist grassroots. The party rules make provision for a leadership election every April 30th (normally a formality). This concentrated minds, alongside many MLAs’ irritation over Mrs Foster’s handling of the gay conversion vote.

The veteran insists “the big issue was the Northern Ireland protocol” the element of the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU that has angered many unionists by creating a new economic border down the Irish Sea. Alongside concerns over policing, anxiety about the trade protocol helped fuel the recent serious disorder in loyalist areas.

During the riots Arlene Foster’s “name was not good on the ground” the veteran explains. There was a perception Mrs Foster “was turned over by (Boris) Johnson, and didn’t see it coming”. The DUP leader initially talked about making the best of the opportunities the protocol afforded to Northern Ireland businesses, before switching to demand it must be scrapped. Then she appeared to endorse a short lived boycott of north-south meetings in protest over the protocol, before apparently succumbing to pressure and approving the attendance of her Economy Minister Diane Dodds at just such a meeting.

One MP believes the chance to elect a new leader, deputy leader and First Minister will be a “liberating experience” for the DUP. However the former party insider fears that “whoever takes over now will have a terrible inheritance”. DUP fears were raised by an opinion poll published in the Belfast Telegraph in February which suggested the party was haemorrhaging support to both the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice and the centre ground Alliance party. The DUP nightmare is that next May, when a fresh Assembly election is due, unionists will remain in the minority at Stormont and Sinn Féin will become the biggest party, with Michelle O’Neill poised to become First Minister.

The names on most people’s lips to replace Mrs Foster are those of the Environment Minister Edwin Poots, the Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson. Mr Poots ticks the right boxes for the DUP’s Christian right, although the TUV leader Jim Allister has been quick to label him as the protocol’s “chief implementer” because of the role his departmental officials played in setting up import controls at Northern Ireland’s ports. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson quit the Ulster Unionists at the same time as Mrs Foster and has long been assumed to harbour ambitions not only to lead the DUP but also to unite unionism. Gavin Robinson would represent a generational change, but may be considered too liberal to benefit from a coup associated with a return to the DUP’s fundamentalist values.

There is increasing talk of dividing the leadership responsibilities between Westminster and Stormont, with a leader in one place and a First Minister in the other. With that in mind, both Mr Poots and Sir Jeffrey are used to working together as fellow representatives in the Lagan Valley constituency. But Lagan Valley is a place where, in December 2019, the Alliance candidate Sorcha Eastwood took a massive chunk out of the DUP’s majority. If this coup is viewed as taking the DUP back to its fundamentalist past, Ms Eastwood senses another electoral opportunity. She thinks Lagan Valley will not back “people who have prided themselves on denying rights to others” and her DUP rivals will be chasing a “diminishing pool” of voters.

The politician who succeeds Arlene Foster is more likely to frame their leadership as taking on the trade protocol than leading a moral crusade. When it comes to Brexit, Ms Eastwood says the experience of the referendum, and its aftermath “left a bad taste” in her Lagan Valley constituents’ mouths because they “saw the DUP backed the wrong horse and instead of admitting they messed up the party came back full of bombast”. Whether battle is joined over the Brexit protocol or wider social, cultural and moral issues, the next Stormont election (currently scheduled for May next year) looks set to be a stiff test for whoever the DUP chooses as the party’s new leader.

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