‘Time is right to move on’: Foster looks set to quit DUP after standing down as leader

Northern Ireland First Minister has not seen letter of no confidence signed by colleagues

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster has said it is the right time to "move on and to do something different" amid reports that she will quit the Democratic Unionist Party after standing down as leader.

After more than five years at the helm, Ms Foster announced on Wednesday she would resign from the leadership role on May 28th and as the First Minister at the end of June.

It followed a heave against her from a significant majority of her party’s Assembly members and MPs, who signed a letter of no confidence in her leadership.

On Friday, BBC Northern Ireland reported Ms Foster will also leave the DUP party to which she defected from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in 2004.

It is reported that Ms Foster no longer believes the DUP is the party she joined and that it is moving in a different direction. It is understood the Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA informed her constituency association on Thursday.

There is speculation she may join the House of Lords.

Visiting a primary school on the Ards peninsula in Co Down on Friday, Ms Foster said she would wait until she steps down as First Minister at the end of June before outlining her intention on whether she will leave the DUP altogether.

“It’s been a turbulent week, it’s been a week where I’ve had to make pretty big decisions,” she said. “But I think the time is right to move on and to do something different, and that’s what I’ll do.”

Appearing emotional as she spoke to reporters, Ms Foster said none of her DUP colleagues who moved to oust her have contacted her to explain why.

Politics was “brutal” but she was “at peace” with her decision to leave the local political scene in Northern Ireland, she said.

“I still haven’t seen the letter that was talked about so I presume I will see that at some stage,”she added.

Ms Foster’s sudden departure comes amid mounting unionist and loyalist anger over a de facto trade border in the Irish Sea as a result of Brexit, for which her party campaigned.

There are also internal party tensions between traditionalists and those regarded as having more moderate views. Some objected to Ms Foster's decision to abstain in a Stormont vote on so-called gay conversion therapy.

UUP leader Steve Aiken described Ms Foster’s forced departure as a “defining moment” for unionism.

In a pitch for voters to switch allegiance, Mr Aiken said the DUP’s leadership of unionism since 2003 “has been nothing short of disastrous.”

The party’s “extreme religious dogma” remains “in its DNA to this day, as everyone can clearly see”, he said.

Mr Aiken described the DUP’s “mishandling” of the Brexit negotiations as “catastrophic”, adding that “the outworking of which through the Northern Ireland Protocol means, as a party, the DUP has caused more political harm to the union than Sinn Féin and the IRA ever did.”

“The news that Arlene Foster is to leave the DUP after being forced to resign as its leader, is a huge wake-up call for unionism,” he said.

“We are now at a defining moment for unionism. What is important now, is where we go from here.”

‘Next chapter’

The First Minister said she hoped the DUP would continue to “look forward”.

“I joined a party that wanted to look forward, that wanted to build a Northern Ireland for everybody, that recognised that there were divisions in society and to try and deal with those divisions and to move Northern Ireland to a better place and I hope that’s the direction of the party that continues,” she said.

Ms Foster continued: “It was made clear to me by the number of people who felt that they wanted to sign the letter, which as I say I haven’t seen yet, that I didn’t have the support of my colleagues and when you don’t have the support of your colleagues you really can’t continue in the job as party leader.

“So the time is right to move on, to do something different and do something new and I’m very much looking forward to that challenge.”

Ms Foster made clear that some of her “very good friends” did not sign the letter of no confidence.

“I think you should also recognise that not everybody signed the letter, some very good friends did not. And I think you should note that as well,” she said.

The DUP leader added: “I haven’t really had any engagement from any of the colleagues who felt that I should leave, so I suppose that’s the disappointment - that I don’t actually know what the reason is for it, but, as I say, you know, that’s politics, all political careers have to come to an end, mine will come to an end at the end of June.”

Asked whether she would like to join the House of Lords, she said those decisions were not made by her.

She said she wished whoever leads the party well, but she would not be drawn on who she would be supporting in any leadership contest.

“I don’t know who the next leader of the party is going to be, I don’t know what their policies are going to be, undoubtedly we’ll hear more of that in the coming weeks, but I am simply saying to you that I hope that, as the largest party and as the largest unionist party, that is a positive message that we’re bringing forward to the future, because I think there’s a very positive story to tell,” she said.

Ms Foster said she hoped devolution was not at risk. “The future of Northern Ireland is very much tied up with devolution and being able to take those decisions locally, it’s very important,” she said.

Former DUP leader and ex-first minister Peter Robinson warned that Ms Foster’s successor is faced with a task “not for the faint-hearted” and “will not be forgiven” if they take the party in the wrong direction.

Mr Robinson also cautioned the party against “ditching everything and everyone who has developed the party into the leading political force it has become.”

Writing in the Belfast News Letter, he said Ms Foster “provided the space for the DUP to take a breath and consider not just who will lead them but where they want to be led.”

Paying tribute to her, he said the First Minister “will find out over the months to come, from regular decent people, that her contribution has been appreciated”.

The new leader would have to undertake “difficult conversations with representatives about what the party expects from them” and determine a way to “widen the net to attract others to grow the ranks of unionism”.

In the wake of Brexit, there was also a need to “deal with the conundrum created by having a land border with an EU member state”, he said.

“It is an awesome responsibility not just for a new leader but for all those who will make the choice of leader and the party’s policy direction,” Mr Robinson warned.

“Make a bad choice or take the wrong course and the union will be in peril and you will not be forgiven.”

The North's minister of agriculture Edwin Poots has announced he is to stand for the leadership of the DUP.

There is speculation that MP Jeffrey Donaldson will consider over the weekend whether he will challenge Mr Poots for the role.

However, as an MP he will not be able to assume the role of First Minister.

Observers have suggested the possibility of a joint leadership, with Mr Donaldson leading the party from Westminster and Mr Poots leading at Stormont.

MP Gavin Robinson has also been mentioned as a potential challenger.– Additional reporting from PA