Gone without a fight: Arlene Foster walks away as DUP MLA says clear out of party’s top brass required

Once the darling of the DUP whose name or image adorned its every poster, yesterday Arlene Foster accepted that her position as leader was untenable and walked away without even fighting for her job.

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 6:20 am
Updated Thursday, 29th April 2021, 9:08 am

Just 26 hours after dismissing Tuesday’s News Letter front page report of growing discontent with her leadership, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA signalled that she is not just leaving the helm of the party, but leaving politics itself.

Last night the focus turned to who will replace Mrs Foster, with no declared candidates and no clarity on how long it will take for the party to choose her successor.

But Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill warned the DUP not to expect dramatic alterations to how Stormont is run, telling RTE that those thinking there will be “radical change” under a new DUP leader are “living in a fool’s paradise”.

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Arlene Foster at work in her Stormont office last month. She will quit as DUP leader on May 28. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Arlene Foster at work in her Stormont office last month. She will quit as DUP leader on May 28. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

A DUP MLA who spoke to the News Letter at lunchtime yesterday said that 23 MLAs had signed the letter of no confidence in the party leadership, representing an overwhelming 85% of MLAs with the DUP whip.

Significantly, the MLA said that those signing the letter were clear that by stating that they “with regret no longer have confidence in Mrs Foster or the leadership”, the signatories were looking for far wider change with the removal of deputy leader Lord Dodds, chief executive Timothy Johnston and chief spin doctor John Robinson.

The MLA said: “Leadership means the leader, the deputy leader, and the team they’ve managed to get around them that has led to them being out of step to a point where no matter who was speaking the truth to them, it wasn’t going in. People have just had enough. They’re asking: ‘How did we get here, and why didn’t we stop it sooner?’.”

However, a signatory to the letter told Stephen Nolan that Mr Johnston and Mr Robinson’s roles were not in jeopardy.

In a lengthy valedictory statement issued at 4pm yesterday, Mrs Foster said that she had phoned DUP chairman Lord Morrow “to inform him that I intend to step down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party on the 28th of May and as first minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June”.

The statement defended Mrs Foster’s record as leader, while alluding to failures on her watch, euphemistically referring to “lows along the way” and saying that “the RHI Inquiry was a difficult period”.

At a time when a growing number of unionists are questioning the Belfast Agreement and the value of Stormont, Mrs Foster emphasised her belief in devolution: “As I prepare to depart the political stage it is my view that if Northern Ireland is to prosper then it will only do so built on the foundations of successful and durable devolution.

“That will require continued hard work and real determination and courage on all sides.”

Referring to her role in history as the first female leader of Northern Ireland, Mrs Foster said that she “broke a glass ceiling and I am glad it inspired other women to enter politics and spurred them on to take up elected office.

“I understand the misogynistic criticisms that female public figures have to take and sadly it’s the same for all women in public life.

“I want to encourage you to keep going and don’t let the online lynch mobs get you down.”

Mrs Foster, who has always been vocal in speaking of her pride in Northern Ireland, said that “it has been the privilege of my life to serve the people of Northern Ireland as their first minister and to represent my home constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone”.

The outgoing DUP leader concluded with striking conciliatory words not in keeping with some of her actions as DUP leader, saying: “There are people in Northern Ireland with a British identity, others are Irish, others are Northern Irish, others are a mixture of all three and some are new and emerging.

“We must all learn to be generous to each other, live together and share this wonderful country. The future of unionism and Northern Ireland will not be found in division, it will only be found in sharing this place we all are privileged to call home.”

Yesterday several DUP members insisted to the News Letter that last week’s motion on gay conversion therapy was not the catalyst for the party’s decision to turn on Mrs Foster.

They highlighted that some of the party’s most liberal members had signed the letter calling for Mrs Foster to quit.

One influential DUP member said: “This is an accumulation of her petulant responses to any questioning of her leadership, her complete refusal to discuss policy or the way the party is heading ... she got a taste for power and forgot where she came from.”

Another DUP member, speaking ahead of Mrs Foster’s statement, said: “She came through RHI and everything else, but her time has run out. She didn’t manage the Irish Sea border well – she hoped it would go away, but it won’t.”

That person added that sweeping change is necessary, saying: “If Timothy [Johnston] and John [Robinson] stay, then there’s no point in all of this.”

Mrs Foster received the customary statements of goodwill from political leaders in Belfast, Dublin and London. However, there was clear restraint in Sinn Fein’s statement from the party’s effusive words of recognition for the leadership of the late Ian Paisley and of Peter Robinson when they retired as DUP leaders in 2008 and 2015 respectively.

The only party to stand outside the consensus was People Before Profit, which issued a blistering statement which began with the words: “Arlene Foster is finally gone. No surprise, but she should have gone a long time ago” and went on to say: “We have never had one iota of confidence in Arlene Foster.”

Ulster Unionist Party chairman Danny Kennedy said: “In the bear pit that is Northern Ireland politics we should remember the personal feelings of Arlene Foster and her family.

“Politics is such a blood sport but we are all human. I wish her well for the future.”

TUV leader Jim Allister – the man who many in the DUP fear will eat into their vote in next year’s Assembly election – was similarly warm towards the departing DUP leader, saying that “the speed of her dispatch will have added to the hurt”.

He said: “I have known Arlene for many years, dating back to when we both practised law. In all my dealings with her I found her straightforward and honourable, whatever our political differences.”

He added that the next DUP leader needed to be “committed to restoring the Union and undoing the severe damage done by the iniquitous protocol”.

l Morning View, page 16

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