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28 April 2021

The DUP’s crisis won’t end with Arlene Foster’s leadership

The pressures placed on Northern Ireland and the Union by the Brexit vote won’t go away when Foster exits the political stage.

By Stephen Bush

Arlene Foster’s leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) appears to have entered its last days after more than 75 per cent of DUP legislative assembly members and at least half of the party’s eight MPs signed a letter expressing their lack of confidence in her leadership. Of less direct importance – but a further sign that Foster’s leadership has lost essentially any support it had within the party – are two letters from councillors and party members respectively, calling explicitly for Foster and her deputy, Nigel Dodds, to stand down. (The News Letter’s Sam McBride has the scoop on both stories.)

The DUP has never had a contested leadership election nor a leadership challenge, but the leader’s mandate must be formally renewed every year on 30 April – something I think we can safely say would not happen in this instance. 

Foster’s leadership has been hit not only by the Northern Ireland protocol and the great big regulatory border it puts in the Irish Sea, but also by a series of threats to the DUP’s aims and objectives across the board. In the 2017 Stormont election the unionist majority was eradicated, in part due to the “cash for ash” scandal, a poorly-devised renewable heating initiative overseen by the Northern Ireland business department when Foster was the minister in charge. 

The 2017 general election, which handed the DUP so much influence at Westminster, helped to secure and revitalise Foster’s under-pressure leadership. But we all know how that worked out: the DUP set itself against any form of soft Brexit and, as a result, ended up with a border down the Irish Sea. 

The failure to secure a Brexit that entrenched, rather than loosened, Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is only one in a series of defeats and setbacks for the DUP under Foster. Abortion in Northern Ireland has been legalised by Westminster, going over the heads of the party. And the prospect of a united Ireland is both more real and present in political debate than it has ever been. Add to that the ongoing anger over the policing of senior IRA figure Bobby Storey’s funeral last June, and a perception that Northern Ireland’s political settlement has been upended, and you have a recipe for perpetual discontent in the DUP’s rank and file. Significantly, councillors and party activists are calling for repeal both of the new abortion law and the Northern Ireland protocol.

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[see also: Why the riots in Northern Ireland are about more than just Brexit]

But the big lie that Foster’s critics both within and outside the DUP are selling themselves is that the party’s plight has much to do with any one of its leaders. In many ways, Foster’s inability to secure a Brexit that prevented the creation of new borders between Northern Ireland and the UK was an inevitable consequence of her weak position in the DUP following the 2017 election. 

She never had the stature within the DUP, and, as a relative moderate, would always have struggled to maintain the party’s trust if she had shown signs of watering down its Brexit position in order to secure a deal that prevented a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As disastrous – and predictable – as the DUP’s betrayal by Conservative Brexiteers was, it is hard to imagine how any leader could have charted a different course. And once abortion in Northern Ireland attained a nationwide spotlight, it was always going to be dictated by the pro-choice majority in the House of Commons. 

And that’s the big problem for Foster’s successor: while the DUP’s crisis may have burst into the open under her, the pressures placed on the Union by the Brexit vote won’t go away when she leaves the political stage, and the wider challenges facing unionism can’t be wished away either. 

What’s more likely is a further polarisation of views and yet more deadlock at Stormont. The DUP’s next leader will, if anything, be even less well-placed to compromise than the current one and the challenges facing the party will only get harder from here.

[see also: Why does Boris Johnson keep making impossible promises on Northern Ireland?]