Arlene Foster has told internal opponents that she will not be walking away from the DUP leadership after a series of criticisms of the party emerged at an unusually forthright meeting of the DUP executive in Omagh last week.
Over recent weeks there have been rumours of a potential challenge to Mrs Foster before the party’s annual conference at the end of next month.
Power within the party has shifted from Stormont – where Mrs Foster has now not been first minister for almost two years – to Westminster, while the tide of revelations from the RHI Inquiry have exposed problem after problem in how the party has been run.
But Mrs Foster’s stance at the meeting last Thursday night suggests that there is scant chance of her deciding to vacate her position voluntarily and her internal critics will have to launch a formal challenge – something which has never happened in the history of the DUP – if she is to be removed.
The News Letter understands that during the meeting, which lasted for about two hours and involved about 80 people, Mrs Foster and the wider party leadership faced criticism on at least three fronts – the revelations about the party’s role in the RHI scandal, the issue of Spads and her attendance at a GAA match.
Many of those who spoke out at the meeting were councillors, a group of people particularly concerned about the public perception of the party because they face the electorate next May.
One DUP member who was at the meeting told this newspaper that Mrs Foster had set out how she planned to make changes to respond to some of the unhappiness and that those who spoke in support of, or opposition to, her were “usual suspects” on either side, rather than a sudden shift in people’s positions.
Another individual said that the meeting had involved “a lot of grumbling” while another described it as “very acrimonious”.
He said that Lord Morrow, who was chairing the meeting, “tried to close down the debate” about RHI but was unable to due to the strength of feeling in the room.
He described the meeting – which began with prayer and a scriptural exhortation – as “brutal” and said that there was loud applause for criticisms of the party.
However, he said that Mrs Foster had made her intentions clear, with words to the effect of “I’ll be going nowhere”.
There were also indications of what are now clearly delineated internal fault lines.
At one point North Antrim councillor John Finlay complained about the handling of the RHI scandal, prompting a sharp rebuke from elsewhere in the room, with someone calling out that he was in no position to talk, given the scandal surrounding North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jr, in whose defence Mr Finlay has publicly spoken.
One of those present said that Foster had been was “pretty defiant the whole way through” but that the meeting had been unusually uncomfortable.
However, another member said that although the meeting had involved plain speaking, the fact that it had been held in a way that allowed an open internal debate about issues which are clearly concerning party members was a positive and a sign of change from the days of Peter Robinson’s leadership.
He said: “We now have more frequent party executives – the executive was pretty much forgotten about under Peter.
“The reason this [the blunt criticism] could happen is because Arlene is willing to have debate.
“A lot of the stuff about RHI is about how Peter wanted the world to work and Arlene Foster is being pilloried for the way that the party operated under Peter.”
Among those to speak in defence of Mrs Foster were two of her staunchest allies in the Assembly, Peter Weir and Christopher Stalford.
A DUP spokesman declined to comment on what had transpired at last week’s meeting.