What does Arlene Foster’s resignation mean for the DUP – and Northern Ireland?

The end of a wild ride

By Fraser Raleigh (former Cabinet Office Special Adviser) and Ciaran Gill (former Assistant Press Officer at the Embassy of Ireland, London)

Arlene Foster’s rollercoaster ride as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and First Minister of Northern Ireland came to an end yesterday, as she confirmed that she will step down from both roles in the coming weeks.

The pressure on Foster that had been simmering for years finally bubbled over as DUP MPs and MLAs signalled they had lost confidence in her leadership. The trigger was the upcoming annual vote on April 30 that would have endorsed her leadership for another year. With elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly coming in May 2022 and troubling poll numbers, the DUP faced a ‘now or never’ moment and chose to make a change.

It is likely that the DUP will face a leadership contest for the first time in its history, having only had three leaders since it was established in the 1970s, all appointed without a challenger. There is talk of the role of party leader being split, which would allow a senior DUP MP like Sir Jeffrey Donaldson or rising star Gavin Robinson to take over with an MLA such as Agriculture Edwin Poots stepping up as First Minister.

Foster’s own tenure as leader was certainly rocky. Within a year of becoming DUP leader and First Minister the UK voted to leave the EU and the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed, after then deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at Foster’s failure to step aside during an inquiry into the disastrous Renewable Heat Incentive scheme that she had spearheaded as an Economy Minister. That row saw power sharing collapse for three years.

During that time Foster and the DUP’s attention shifted firmly towards Westminster, as they found themselves in a once in a lifetime position of influence following the 2017 general election and the loss of the Conservatives’ majority. That position was ultimately squandered as the DUP’s flirtation with the harder line Brexiteers in the Conservative Party backfired and led to the implementation of the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement and his revised version of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The sense of Foster having been outmanoeuvred and betrayed by Westminster, combined with longer-running concerns about her leadership and the unthinkable prospect for the party of a Sinn Féin First Minister after next year’s election spurred the DUP to act in what they hope will be the nick of time.

What does it all mean for Northern Ireland?

Contrary to what one highly prominent London-based political journalist has stated, Foster’s departure doesn’t pave the way for more non-aligned voters to support Sinn Féin – a party that has never been neutral about the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. Instead, Foster’s departure – and her potential replacement by a more socially conservative leader – could lead to the non-aligned Alliance Party attracting more support from more moderate DUP voters.

The signs of an electoral windfall for Alliance may already be there. From October 2020 to February 2021, at a time when the DUP and others continued to rail against the Protocol, the Alliance Party’s support increased by 2% to 18% – just 1% behind the DUP on 19%. 

In the other direction, a LucidTalk poll in February found that the DUP’s support had fallen by 4% with support for the more hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) rising by 4%. The TUV’s rise in support has taken place on the back of unionist anger at the Northern Ireland Protocol .  

Foster’s replacement by a leader who is more socially conservative and less willing to work with the North/South structures of the island of Ireland created by the Good Friday Agreement may therefore see the DUP claw back some of the support that has been lost to the TUV. Unionist opposition to the Protocol, as such, may become even more robust.

With elections coming next year, a new DUP leader may also recognise that there could be political support to be garnered from ramping up tensions with its power-sharing partner Sinn Féin. Although the parties have shared a generally rocky relationship, bright spots have included Foster’s attendance at the 2018 Ulster GAA Final and Foster’s admittance last year that she and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill have learned to “differ well”. A new DUP leader, worried about the rise in TUV support and unionist disquiet at the party’s role in bringing about the Northern Ireland Protocol, may seek to forge a more distant working relationship. 

It has been a difficult few months for Northern Ireland, in its hundredth year of existence. As we gear up for pivotal elections next year, the impact of what the DUP decides to do next may be felt for a very long time.