Comment: Arlene Foster resigns – What’s next?

Arlene Foster will step down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on 28 May and as First Minister at the end of June. Feargal Cochrane, an Emeritus Professor at the University’s School of Politics and International Relations, has commented on what the future could look like for Northern Ireland leadership and the implications on the general public. He said:

Once it became clear that the overwhelming majority of Arlene Foster’s senior colleagues had sent her a letter expressing no confidence in her leadership, it was a matter of when she would step down rather than if.

‘The DUP has never had a leadership election before, but an election is more probable to determine its next leader as there are several heavyweights with legitimate claims on the top job, including Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Edwin Poots among others.

‘Beyond the internal machinations of the DUP there are some more pressing implications for the rest of us, in Ireland and beyond. Firstly, who becomes leader of the DUP will have a direct bearing on the survival or implosion of the devolved institutions established after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Power-sharing with Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party and thus an essential partner in government, has never come easily to the DUP. The next prospective leader will be quizzed about their attitude to Sinn Fein, to deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, and to the policy issues that Sinn Fein is wedded to. The chemistry between Arlene Foster as First Minister and Michelle O’Neill as deputy First Minister was never easy, but they did establish a cordial working relationship that enabled the government to function. A lurch to the right would make this more problematic and it would be difficult in those circumstances to see a viable future for devolved government.

‘Secondly, prospective leadership candidates will have to take a position on what they are going to do to remove or mitigate the effects of the Northern Ireland Protocol. That issue, along with Brexit and the litany of other policy problems will still be there when the new leader takes up office.

‘Very few unionist leaders have come to power preaching the gospel of compromise and moderation and this process is likely to see a race to the bottom over who can act toughest against the Protocol and or Sinn Fein and the Irish government. It is not inconceivable that a DUP hopeful will promise their party that they will not take up office as First Minister if they are elected until the Protocol is removed. If they fail to take up the First Minister role (currently only the DUP is eligible to occupy that office as the largest party in the Assembly) then after seven days the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis will be forced to call an early Assembly Election.

‘Collapsing the Assembly and forcing an election with Northern Ireland still battling against the Covid-19 pandemic would be less than ideal for Northern Ireland and is unlikely to achieve anything useful for unionists either. However, while it would be a strategic blunder for the next DUP leader to disappear down a right-wing fundamentalist rabbit hole, it might play well with their base and with the small number of colleagues who will determine who becomes the next leader. The stark reality for the DUP is that there is no quick fix for their current predicament and lurching to the right will only worsen their already beleaguered fortunes.

‘Northern Ireland is 100 years old on 3rd May – a difficult anniversary to get past without tensions rising between unionists who want to celebrate the centenary and nationalists who see it as an event that led to generations of political exclusion and sectarianism. In the end though it looks like the DUP has successfully torpedoed its own birthday party.’

Feargal Cochrane is an Emeritus Professor of International Conflict Analysis in the University’s School of Politics and International Relations. He is an expert on issues relating to the political conflict in Northern Ireland and on civil society initiatives, especially non-governmental organisations and their capacity to assist conflict prevention and conflict transformation within divided societies. Professor Cochrane’s most recent book release, ‘Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace’, contains the complete history of Northern Ireland from the Irish Civil War to Brexit. Re-published to coincide with the region’s centenary, Professor Cochrane argues that Brexit represents the biggest threat to the continued existence of Northern Ireland since Ireland was partitioned in 1921.

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