The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Arlene Foster is to stand down as party leader on May 28th, and as First Minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June.
Ms Foster had faced a revolt against her leadership over the handling of Brexit, in particular the Northern Ireland Protocol, and a decision to abstain in a vote on so-called gay conversion therapy.
She led the party for almost five-and-a-half years.
She made her announcement in a statement on Wednesday afternoon, saying it was “important to give space over the next few weeks for the Party Officers to make arrangements for the election of a new leader.
“When elected I will work with the new leader on transition arrangements.
“As First Minister it is important that I complete work on a number of important issues for Northern Ireland alongside other Executive colleagues. Northern Ireland and its people have been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and there remains more work to be done to steer us thorough the pandemic and to lessen its impact on the lives of everyone.”
She said she had called the DUP chairman Lord Maurice Morrow to inform him of her intentions.
“It has been the privilege of my life to serve the people of Northern Ireland as their First Minister and to represent my home constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone,” she said.
Ms Foster said her election as leader of the DUP “broke a glass ceiling”, adding: “I am glad inspired other women to enter politics and spurred them on to take up elected office.
“I understand the misogynistic criticisms that female public figures have to take and sadly it’s the same for all women in public life.
“I want to encourage you to keep going and don’t let the online lynch mobs get you down.”
She thanked the “hundreds” of DUP supporters who had been in touch with her over the last few days.
“I have sought to lead the Party and Northern Ireland away from division and towards a better path.
“There are people in Northern Ireland with a British identity, others are Irish, others are Northern Irish, others are a mixture of all three and some are new and emerging. We must all learn to be generous to each other, live together and share this wonderful country.
“The future of unionism and Northern Ireland will not be found in division, it will only be found in sharing this place we all are privileged to call home.”
President Michael D Higgins, in a brief statement, sent good wishes to Ms Foster.
“Serving in public life makes great demands on individuals, which is important to acknowledge,” Mr Higgins said.
“May I thank Arlene Foster for her public service over many years and wish her health and happiness in the future.”
Taoiseach Michéal Martin said he knew how proud Ms Foster was of her homeplace of Co Fermanagh.
“Political leadership is often not easy and takes courage,” he said.
“As the first female leader of the DUP and the first female First Minister of Northern Ireland, working alongside the deputy First Minister, she sent a strong message to women about what can be achieved in and through politics.”
He added: “As a person who has personal experience of the suffering that violence brings, Arlene knows more than most how difficult it is, but also how important it is, to work together for the peace and prosperity for all.
“I am sure that she will continue to make an important contribution to public life.
“I send my best wishes to her and her family for the future.”
Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar said he was “very sorry” to learn that Ms Foster had resigned as leader of the DUP.
“She is somebody who I know very well. I worked with her for 10 years, initially when we were both tourism ministers working on North-South projects like the Rugby World Cup, and then in more difficult times during Brexit, as Taoiseach and Leader of the DUP.
“I really want to wish her the very best in her future life and whatever she decides to do.
Mr Varadkar concluded: “Her closing statement today really resonated with me - this understanding we must have that people in Northern Ireland are Irish, British, Northern Irish, or a mixture of all these things, and that we have to be generous to each other and understand each other.”
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney tweeted: “Best wishes to DUPleader Arlene Foster & her family this evening. “While we bring different perspectives to some issues, she has worked sincerely, tirelessly & with determination for her party & for NI as First Minister.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald acknowledged the work Ms Foster had done throughout the Covid-19 crisis and said that today must have been a difficult one for her.
However, Ms McDonald said that when the DUP elected its new leader it would mean it would have to respect diversity and the delivery of the Irish Language Act.
“Unionism is at a crossroads. The inbuilt unionist majority is now a thing of the past.
“Progressive social changes such as marriage equality are happening. Brexit and Covid-19 are also driving the politics of change. There is no going back,” said Ms McDonald.
The North’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she had spoken to Ms Foster today, “and she informed me of her decision to step down. I wished her and and her family well.
“I have worked alongside Arlene Foster this past year in what has been a difficult and challenging time for everyone with the unexpected onset of the Covid pandemic.
“Throughout the pandemic I acknowledge the efforts Arlene Foster has made as First Minister, and the service that she has given in working with the rest of the Executive as we have battled the biggest health crisis in a generation.
Ms O’Neill said it was now a matter for the DUP to choose a replacement.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, whose resignation has also been demanded by the party’s councillors, tweeted: “Arlene has dedicated her life to defending the Union and moving Northern Ireland forward. She has demonstrated great courage and is an example for women in public life.
“Thank you Arlene. It’s been a privilege to work alongside you.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tweeted: “Sending Arlene Foster and her family personal good wishes.
“Regardless of personnel changes - the fundamental problems haven’t changed, and neither have the solutions. Those who want to take her place need to reflect on how we work together to unite our communities.”
Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said: “Politics is a difficult arena which can take an enormous toll, on both you personally and your family. “I wish Arlene all the best for the future.”
Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry described Mrs Foster as “heavily committed to public service”.
Mr Farry tweeted: “I wish Arlene Foster well. I have known Arlene for 30 years, and have worked with her on achieving record levels of inward investment to NI.
“She has been heavily committed to public service. There will be other chances to talk of her legacy as DUP leader and what happens next.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said: “I have no doubt this has been a very difficult day for Arlene Foster and that the speed of her dispatch will have added to the hurt.
“I therefore wish Mrs Foster and her family all the best for the future. In all my dealings with her I found her straightforward and honourable, whatever our political differences.
“Going forward, I trust the new DUP leader will be wholly committed to restoring the union and undoing the severe damage done by the iniquitous protocol.
“Only the unstitching of the union-dismantling protocol can restore our place within the United Kingdom and afford us the equal citizenship we require. This should be the priority of every unionist.” - Additional reporting PA