Hard to see way out for Arlene Foster as leadership battle looms

Analysis: Tensions within DUP over Brexit, abortion and other issues, have boiled over

Northern Ireland’s First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster faces a leadership challenge. Photograph: PA

Northern Ireland’s First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster faces a leadership challenge. Photograph: PA

 

Arlene Foster is well used to having to defend herself against claims of challenges to her leadership.

The - for now - DUP leader pointed out as much when tackled by reporters about claims of grassroots discontent on Tuesday, dismissing them as an irrelevance when there were “bigger things” such as Covid-19 and the Northern Ireland protocol to deal with.

“Stories on leadership come up from time to time, and it’s one of those times,” Ms Foster said.

Yet within hours it was apparent this was not simply another one of those times. The rumours had crystallised into hard facts; that a majority of both her Assembly members and her MPs no longer had confidence in her, or indeed in the party leadership.

In the case of MLAs, the numbers were at least 21 out of 28, or 75 per cent.

Such figures would strike fear into the heart of any party leader, not least given the fact that, in the DUP’s case, it is the MLAs and MPs - the very figures who have withdrawn their support from her - who will vote in any leadership election.

It is hard to see a way out of this for Foster, not least given that councillors have also signed their own version of the letter; meaning the bandwagon is now well and truly rolling, and as it gathers momentum, it appears that Foster will only be left further behind.

The question now is how fast it can go? The former DUP special adviser, Tim Cairns, has indicated that DUP rules require a leadership election to take place before April 30th each year; one wonders whether the timing is a coincidence.

However, Rule 12 also states that party officers must meet to call an election, and must give seven days notice, so in theory it could come next week, rather than this week.

Much will also depend on Foster herself. Will she take on the challenge, or will she decide to resign?

One source felt stepping away was unlikely, that Foster would be “clinging on by her fingernails” as she was dragged from office.

In fairness to Foster, her time as party leader has been far from straightforward.

The demands of the Covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding - and it is a moot point as to whether any other incumbent might have fared any better - since her appointment in 2015 there has been the scandal over a botched renewable heating scheme, collapse of the Assembly and its suspension for three years, and of course, Brexit.

This above all else is the focus of much of the ire directed towards the DUP among the grassroots, where there is anger not only over the Northern Ireland protocol and the Irish Sea Border, but at the party’s failure to use its influence at Westminster to prevent this.

An about-turn earlier this year, when Foster went from extolling the opportunities of the Northern Ireland Protocol at the start of January to leading the charge to have it scrapped, was as much the result of a poll which showed the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and Alliance - the DUP’s greatest threats on the right and left respectively - had increased their popularity as it was any ideological opposition, and spooked the party into emphasising its pro-union, anti-protocol credentials.

Within the DUP there were other tensions, not least over abortion services in the North and, last week, over the boycott of North South Ministerial Council meetings and the abstention of some senior party figures, including Ms Foster, in an Assembly vote over gay conversion therapy. Eventually, the pot boiled over.

There is no shortage of potential contenders.

Edwin Poots, the Minister for Agriculture, who represents the more traditional, religious elements of the party, is reported to be the front-runner; other candidates include the MPs Gavin Robinson or Jeffrey Donaldson, viewed as more progressive.

There are other questions - what of others in the party’s senior leadership team, including the deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, whose resignation has also been demanded by the party’s councillors?

What also of the position of First Minister, in the gift of the DUP as the largest party in the Assembly; there have been indications that some in the party are open to splitting the roles so that the First Minister would not also be the party leader.

But undeniably the greatest question mark is over the future direction of the party, and what it might mean not just for politics within Northern Ireland at what is already a tense time, but for future relationships with Dublin, London and Brussels.

This is the decision facing the DUP ahead of an Assembly election next year. Can a new leader bridge the left and right in the party and regain support lost to Alliance and the TUV, and deal with the many challenges ahead, not least another threatened row over the Irish language and the ever-present threat that it all might unravel again at Stormont?

Yet if its response is to move to the right, as appears likely, then this will surely only increase the haemorrhaging of more moderate voters to the Alliance party.

If the DUP’s ultimate goal is to keep Northern Ireland in the union, then this is the battlefield upon which it will be lost.