Serving Northern Ireland was ‘privilege of my life’, says outgoing First Minister
Arlene Foster has described serving the people of Northern Ireland as the privilege of her life as she announced her resignation as DUP leader and Stormont First Minister.
Mrs Foster will stand down as party leader on May 28 and as First Minister at the end of June after bowing to a major internal heave against her.
The 50-year-old Fermanagh and South Tyrone Assembly Member suggested an intent to quit politics altogether, with her resignation statement speaking of preparing to “depart the political stage”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was among those paying tribute to Mrs Foster.
“I want to thank Arlene Foster @DUPleader for her dedication to the people of Northern Ireland over many years,” he tweeted.
“She will continue to play a vital role as First Minister until June and I hope that she stays in public service for years to come.”
Irish Premier Micheal Martin noted the new ground she broke in becoming Northern Ireland’s first female first minister.
“She sent a strong message to women about what can be achieved in and through politics,” he said.
Mrs Foster’s announcement comes 24 hours after DUP colleagues unhappy with her leadership moved against her, with a majority of senior elected representatives signing a letter of no confidence.
Discontent at the DUP’s Brexit strategy was a major factor in the revolt, with party rank and file laying some of the blame for the emergence of an Irish Sea border at her door.
Traditionalists from the party’s religious fundamentalist wing also harboured concerns over positions Mrs Foster had taken on some social issues.
MPs Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Gavin Robinson, both viewed as moderates, and the more hardline Stormont Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots are among the names emerging as potential successors.
There is some speculation that when Mrs Foster does depart, the twin roles she currently occupies could be split going forward, with one politician taking on the role of party leader and another being appointed First Minister.
That would potentially allow an MP to lead the party from Westminster while an MLA takes on the First Minister’s job.
Mrs Foster, who has been leader for more than five years, said the staggered timeline for her departure was designed to “give space” for the process of electing a successor.
“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.
Mrs Foster added: “For almost five-and-a-half years I have been incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to lead the Democratic Unionist Party.
“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.”
Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was among those wishing Mrs Foster 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,” she said.
“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.”
There has been growing unease among DUP members about Mrs Foster and the wider party leadership in recent months.
The primary source of concern is the handling of the Brexit process. The DUP is facing anger from the wider loyalist and unionist community for the introduction of an Irish Sea border.
Critics have accused Mrs Foster of failing to use the party’s influence at Westminster – particularly during its confidence and supply deal with the Conservatives – to secure a Brexit deal that saw Northern Ireland leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.
She has also been accused of not being vociferous enough in opposition to the contentious protocol, which governs the new Brexit trading barriers between NI and GB, ahead of its introduction at the start of 2021.
Poor recent polling numbers have exacerbated the discontent within the party faithful, who are mindful of next May’s looming Assembly election.
Aside from the Irish Sea border, Mrs Foster’s decision to abstain in a vote calling for a ban on gay conversion therapy last week appears to have further agitated sections of the party’s fundamentalist grassroots.
The majority of her party Assembly colleagues voted against the motion, having failed to amend it to include reference to religious protections.
Mrs Foster was among only five party members, including fellow Stormont Executive ministers Peter Weir and Diane Dodds, who abstained.
That episode pointed to tensions between Mrs Foster, a member of the Church of Ireland and former Ulster Unionist, and the more traditional Free Presbyterian wing of the DUP, who perceive her as potentially too moderate on some social issues.
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