DUP begins debate about Arlene Foster’s future

Arlene Foster at the count centre in Omagh
Arlene Foster at the count centre in Omagh

The DUP’s new MLA group heads to Stormont this morning after a weekend where Arlene Foster’s position has been debated by senior party figures.

However, it is understood that there is no plan to hold the customary Monday meeting of the DUP Assembly group.

After a disastrous election for unionism and one in which the DUP lost 10 seats, some party members emerged over the weekend to leave open the possibility of Mrs Foster deciding to step aside.

Those comments followed high-level internal meetings on Saturday afternoon and evening.

There has however not been any open challenge to Mrs Foster and former DUP minister Simon Hamilton set out a different stance on her future to some of his colleagues, insisting that she has “the support of the party”.

Responding on Twitter to an article in the Sunday Business Post, the North Antrim MP was withering.

The newspaper had quoted an unnamed senior DUP member as saying “the campaign last May was the real Arlene, not this campaign,”, adding that many of the problems were down to the “bag of s***e” thrown at her by Sinn Fein”.

Mr Paisley tweeted that he was “not impressed by the analysis of so-called senior DUP source. Could hazard a guess at it. Excuses, excuses!”

In an interview with UTV on Saturday, Mr Paisley also said that Mrs Foster is bruised by recent events “but I’m not blaming the media – they have a job to do”.

And former DUP minister Edwin Poots bluntly accepted (see page 4) that his party had played a part in enraging a previously apathetic section of nationalism, driving them to vote for Sinn Fein. He said: “Unfortunately nationalists and republicans turned out in a way they haven’t done for a long time. We made a contribution to that.

“We have managed to get nationalists and republicans angry and that has led to them winning more seats as well and that’s something that we have to reflect on. Ultimately, no matter how entrenched our positions are we have to get to the point where Northern Ireland as an entity needs to work for its people.”

There is also considerable disquiet within the DUP about the role of some special advisers (Spads), and in particular the roles of the party’s key adviser for more than a decade, Timothy Johnston, and John Robinson (who is Mr Johnston’s brother-in-law).

In recent weeks several DUP members who have not been calling for Arlene Foster to go have privately expressed deep disquiet at how the party has been served by some of its Spads. That has now intensified in the wake of the campaign, given that the party strategy formulated by Mrs Foster and those closest to her, has so spectacularly backfired.

A DUP source yesterday expressed particular unhappiness at the role of Mr Johnston, complaining that he had been given too much authority by successive DUP leaders and was effectively running the party from behind the scenes. The DUP member told the News Letter: “He has effectively been deputy first minister to Doc [Ian Paisley] and Peter and now he is the first minister.”