DUP in ‘open revolt’ at Arlene Foster’s leadership as eight constituency associations submit letters of concern
Arlene Foster faces an “open revolt” in which eight DUP constituency associations have written to the leadership, multiple sources have told the News Letter.
Five DUP members have confirmed that almost half of the party’s 18 associations have in recent days sent letters to express concern at the abstention of Mrs Foster and four other DUP MLAs on an Assembly motion last week urging a ban on gay conversion therapy.
The News Letter has also been told that several DUP councillors have said to colleagues that they are considering resigning from the party.
Several DUP members said that Mrs Foster was losing the support of some of those who until now had been loyal to her.
One senior DUP politician said there “most definitely is unrest” and “major problems” within the party. He said the letters from constituency associations are “looking for answers and explanations” for why the five MLAs had not voted against last week’s motion.
He said there was a fear among veteran DUP members that “the party is jettisoning the principles on which it was founded” and added: “This is not just a flash in the pan. People are very, very annoyed about it. It’s a step too far.”
However, another DUP member said that the conversion therapy motion was “a small, small part” of the real reason behind the letters, which is an exasperation with Mrs Foster’s leadership.
The DUP member said that some party representatives had been heckled at anti-Irish Sea border protests.
“DUP members will not be able to walk with their lodges this year,” he said.
“Gone are the days of kick the pope – it’ll be kick the DUP this year.”
He said that as summer approaches some DUP politicians are “freaking out” about the possibility of facing public anger from loyalist and unionist areas.
A DUP politician said that there was now “open revolt from councillors” who were alarmed at the “inconsistency of the party position” in last week’s debate.
In February, the DUP set out a five-point plan to attempt to remove the Irish Sea border. Point five said that “we also intend to send a strong signal to the government of the Republic of Ireland that North-South relationships are also impacted by the implementation of a protocol which they supported. Our members cannot and will not continue to act as though relationships are normal.”
However, last Monday Mrs Foster was indignant when it was claimed that the DUP was boycotting north-south bodies, saying that was “simply not the case”. The following day DUP minister Diane Dodds attended a north-south meeting.
One of the DUP sources who spoke to the News Letter cited that and other issues as “erratic behaviour” which concerned him.
Veteran DUP MLA Jim Wells – who since a dispute with the party leadership three years ago is no longer subject to the party whip but remains a party member – said that he was aware that eight letters had gone to the party leadership and that he had seen four of them.
The South Down MLA said that his own association was one of those which had written to the leadership, with North Antrim, East Antrim, Upper Bann, South Down and North Belfast among the other associations to raise concerns, showing a geographical spread to the sentiment.
He said that the two catalysts for the letters were last week’s conversion therapy vote and Mrs Dodds’s attendance at the north-south meeting.
Mr Wells, a former health minister who has been vocally opposed to every gay rights reform since the ‘Save Ulster From Sodomy’ campaign of the 1970s, said that “a lot of people are very angry not even so much about the vote, but the attempt to disguise what was going on”.
On Saturday the News Letter revealed that Mr Wells had been approached by a DUP MLA who asked him not to force a recorded vote on the issue, something Mr Wells said he quickly realised was because the party was split and did not want that to emerge publicly.
However, he said that three DUP backbenchers had urged him to ignore that request and to insist on a public vote and that over recent days his phone has been “red hot” with party members contacting him to support his stance.
Mr Wells – whose strident opposition to homosexuality is not universally welcomed within the DUP – said that he believed the party’s divided stance on last week’s vote was part of a move which will harm it politically.
He said that the party leadership “believe that if we go weaker on this issue we can attract a more gay-leaning vote.
“But the typical DUP member is either sitting three rows back in a Presbyterian Church on a Sunday morning or at a band parade on a Saturday night.”
Mr Wells said that he believes most voters in both categories either firmly oppose such changes or are indifferent.
He added: “The view that we can look softer and cuddlier by going weak on these issues is misplaced – the reality is that it’s not only wrong, but politically naive to think anything is to be gained for the DUP by going down this route.”
One former DUP member well acquainted with the party at a high level said that Mrs Foster was now “isolated from both sides of the party”.
He said that she was both isolated from loyalist voters, and was “burning away more and more middle class voters”.”
It’s just getting worse and worse,” he said.
At the time of going to press, Mrs Foster had not responded to a request for comment.
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