Arlene Foster is to step down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and as Six County First Minister. She made the statement after news emerged yesterday of a number of letters drawn up by DUP elected representatives expressing no confidence in the party leadership.
Ms Foster said in a statement: “A short time ago I called the Party Chairman to inform him that I intend to step down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party on the twenty-eighth of May and as First Minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June.”
“It is important to give space over the next few weeks for the party officers to make arrangements for the election of a new leader. When elected, I will work with the new leader on transition arrangements.”
Ms Foster had faced a revolt against her leadership over the handling of Brexit and a decision to abstain in a vote on gay conversion therapy.
Other issues understood to have been criticised by party colleagues were the DUP’s failure to prevent the introduction of abortion legislation from Westminster, and a still unimplemented agreement to guarantee rights for Irish speakers.
Ms Foster said it has been “the privilege of my life to serve the people of Northern Ireland as their First Minister”.
Acknowledging the controversies the Stormont Executive has faced, Ms Foster said “it remains my firm view that Northern Ireland has been better served having local Ministers at this time. It is unthinkable that we could have faced into the Coronavirus pandemic without our own devolved Ministers in place and no Ministerial direction for Departments.
“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.”
Ms Foster had previously denied reports that as many as half of the DUP’s constituency associations wanted her out.
Yesterday it was also reported that three-quarters of the DUP’s Assembly Members had called on Foster to resign in a letter. The signatories were reported to include 21 of the DUP’s 27 MLAs (members of the Stormont Assembly) and four of its eight Westminster MPs.
Party members were said to be infuriated after Foster and four other MLAs — including two of her ministers — had failed to oppose a recent motion in Stormont opposing gay conversion therapy, abstaining as other party members voted against it.
One senior DUP MP had also warned of problems dealing with extremist supporters in the run-up to ‘the Twelfth’, when senior members of the anti-Catholic Orange Order typically take part in marches behind ‘kick-the-Pope’ flute bands and address far-right rallies.
“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.”
Ms Foster will also be remembered for her controversial handling of the RHI ‘green energy’ scandal, in which hundreds of millions of pounds of environmental funds were diverted to insiders, which caused the collapse of the Six County institutions; as well as her successful negotiation of the unimplemented ‘New Decade, New Approach’ talks deal, which revived them.
In a statement today, she said she “had sought to lead the Party and Northern Ireland away from division and towards a better path.
“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.”