Arlene Foster facing leadership challenge as discontent mounts in DUP

First Minister plays down reports of ‘open revolt’ as 23 MLAs sign letter of no confidence

Arlene Foster has played down suggestions her leadership of the DUP is under threat. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Arlene Foster has played down suggestions her leadership of the DUP is under threat. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

 

Arlene Foster’s position as DUP leader appeared to be hanging by a thread on Tuesday night after at least three-quarters of the party’s Assembly members and a majority of its MPs signed a letter of no confidence in her.

The Irish Times understands the letter was signed by up to 23 of the party’s 28 MLAs.

The party chairman, Lord Maurice Morrow, must call a meeting of party officers within seven days if there is to be a leadership election. If an election is held, the leader will be voted for by the party’s MLAs and eight MPs.

There has been mounting discontent among DUP members about Ms Foster’s leadership in recent months amid anger – particularly among the party grassroots but also in the wider unionist and loyalist community – over issues including the Northern Ireland protocol and the DUP’s responsibility for creating the Irish Sea border.

A DUP source said the discontent permeated the party from the grassroots to the highest levels and it was “time for a fresh start”.

On Tuesday, Ms Foster – who is also First Minister by virtue of her position as the leader of Northern Ireland’s largest party – played down reports in the Belfast News Letter that DUP councillors were in “open revolt” against her leadership. It was also reported that eight constituency organisations had written letters expressing their concern over her abstention from an Assembly vote last week on banning gay conversion therapy.

“Stories on leadership come up from time to time, and it’s one of those times,” Ms Foster told reporters. “So we’ll just deal with it and move on because I’ve bigger things to do, including getting us through this Covid pandemic, including listening to the concerns of working-class communities... I’m not going to get into a running commentary on these issues.”

Ms Foster said she had not received any letters from constituency associations, adding “it’s important that we lift our eyes and continue the work of rolling out of the restrictions, deal with the Northern Ireland Protocol”.

In a short statement, the DUP said that while it understood “there will be from time to time public interest in party processes, these issues, in the first instance, are matters for members of the party and we are not able to make any further comment at this time”.

There has been growing discontent among DUP members about Ms Foster’s leadership. Concerns have been raised, particularly in the party grassroots, over her handling of Brexit, and there is anger amongst the wider unionist and loyalist community over the application of the Northern Ireland protocol and the Irish Sea Border.

The Belfast News Letter has reported that several DUP constituency associations wrote letters expressing concern at her decision to abstain on a recent Assembly vote on a motion calling for a ban on gay conversion therapy that did not incorporate a specific mention of protections for religious practices.