Arlene Foster says she will leave DUP and tells Edwin Poots he must ‘heal divisions’

New DUP leader denies split in party and criticises Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney

The North’s outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster. File photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

The North’s outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster. File photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Arlene Foster has confirmed she will leave the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) when she steps down as First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Mrs Foster also said that if new party leader Edwin Poots appoints a new ministerial team on Tuesday, she will step down immediately as First Minister.

She had previously said she would stay in the role until the end of June.

Speaking to reporters as she visited pupils at Banbridge Academy in Co Down, Mrs Foster was asked what she will do if Mr Poots unveils his team on Tuesday.

“My reaction is that I will resign as well because I have my ministerial team in the Executive with me, we have worked very closely together,” Mrs Foster said.

“If Edwin decides that he wants to change that team, I will have to go as well because I can’t stay with a new ministerial team of which I have no authority, and that would be wrong.”

Asked what message she has for the new party leader, Mrs Foster said: “Congratulations on becoming the fourth leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. It is a hugely rewarding job.

“There are very many good people who vote for us, who support us but he (Mr Poots) needs to recognise there is a lot of work to do in terms of healing divisions that are quite obviously there in the party.”

Meanwhile, she told the Financial Times she said she did not agree “with the direction of travel under Edwin’s leadership”.

“I think we are regressing and becoming more narrow. It’s quite nasty, frankly.”

Meanwhile, Mr Poots has denied a split in the party after several senior figures walked out of a meeting to ratify his election to the role before his inaugural speech.

The North’s Minister for Agriculture was confirmed as the party leader at a meeting on Thursday evening in Belfast of the party’s 130-strong executive.

Before he addressed the gathering, Ms Foster, MPs Jeffrey Donaldson, Gavin Robinson and Gregory Campbell, as well as Stormont Economy Minister Diane Dodds, all left.

Mr Donaldson ran against Mr Poots for the leadership.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Mr Poots denied any split.

“The DUP is not a divided party,” he said.

“The DUP has gone through an electoral contest, the first in 50 years, and everybody that goes through an electoral contest will have some passion, and passion is good in politics.

“I like to see people having passion, sometimes even when they are people contesting with me.”

Speaking on the BBC’s Newscast podcast released on Thursday, Ms Foster described her ousting as party leader as “pretty brutal”.

“Politics is brutal, but even by DUP standards it was pretty brutal, in terms of what happened,” she said.

Ms Foster said she had “absolutely no idea” that a letter of no confidence in her leadership was being passed around the party’s MPs and MLAs until the night before “it was across all the papers.”

There was “another way of doing it, but my colleagues decided on a different route”, she said.

Meanwhile, outside the meeting in Belfast, Paul Bell, a DUP member for 20 years and a former chair of Ms Foster’s Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency association, resigned from the ranks.

Mr Bell said he was resigning because of the treatment of Ms Foster.

“It was the way it was done… Arlene Foster fought off the IRA and now her own party has stabbed her in the back,” he said.

“I think it is a complete disgrace.”

Mr Bell predicted the DUP would shed “tens of thousands” of votes over the manner in which Ms Foster was deposed.

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley said his father, who helped found and led the party for more than three decades, went “to his grave with a broken heart” when he was replaced as leader by Peter Robinson.

“If anyone in this party can talk about difficulty, it is me,” he said.

“I saw what happened to my dad, it killed my father...I know it hurts, and leadership transfer hurts...but we have to get over that...”

Mr Paisley said a leadership heave against his father was “instrumental” in the downfall of his political career “and also the ending of his life”.

“It broke his heart,” he added.

Mr Paisley said there are issues in the party that needed to be resolved.

After his ratification as new leader, Mr Poots described his relationship with the Irish Government as “really, really bad” as he criticised Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

Mr Poots appears to have taken issue with an incident from 2018, in which Mr Varadkar brought a copy of The Irish Times to a European Council meeting in Brussels, to highlight his concerns over the Border issue.

The front-page story was about an IRA bombing of a Border customs post in 1972 that left nine people dead.

Asked about his relationship with Dublin, Mr Poots replied: “I would say that I have respect for Micheál Martin.

“But I have to say that for Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, who took photographs of blown up border posts to impose upon Northern Ireland people the harshest form of customs and an internal market that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, that was quite frankly disgraceful.

“They are going to starve Northern Ireland people of medicines no less, cancer drugs and other materials, such as the food that’s on our table,” he said.

“And I say that’s a shame on the Irish government that they (did) that, and that belongs to Fine Gael, under the leadership of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

“So relationships are really, really bad for the Irish government as a consequence.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on Friday congratulated Mr Poots on his ratification, but urged him to work with the “necessary” Northern Ireland protocol.

There was “no viable alternative” being put forward to the clause, which Mr Poots opposes, and there would be no majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly to overthrow it, Mr Varadkar said.

He appealed to Mr Poots to “do the practical thing” by working with the European Commission and both the Dublin and London governments to find “practical solutions to some of the problems that have arisen”.

Separately, police have confirmed they are investigating a report that the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) threatened some members of Mr Donaldson’s team when he was campaigning to be leader of the DUP.

“Police have received a complaint that a number of members of a political party had been threatened during a recent leadership campaign,” a PSNI spokesman said.

“The full circumstances of the incident are still being established and enquiries are continuing at this time.”

Speaking to the BBC, new Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie said the reports were “shocking”.

“There needs to be an investigation into that, there needs to be a police investigation into that,” he said, adding: “Nobody should be intimidated”.Separately, police have confirmed they are investigating a report that the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) threatened some members of Mr Donaldson’s team when he was campaigning to be leader of the DUP.

“Police have received a complaint that a number of members of a political party had been threatened during a recent leadership campaign,” a PSNI spokesman said.

“The full circumstances of the incident are still being established and enquiries are continuing at this time.”

Speaking to the BBC, new Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie said the reports were “shocking”.

“There needs to be an investigation into that, there needs to be a police investigation into that,” he said, adding: “Nobody should be intimidated”. - Additional reporting PA