Northern Ireland news

John Manley: Who emerges as new DUP leader will send clear signal about direction of regional politics over coming years

 First Minister Arlene Foster during a visit to the Mid Ulster Sports Arena in Cookstown. Issue date: Thursday April 22, 2021.

WE’VE lost count of the times that Arlene Foster’s leadership has been called into question but this time it's different.

It’s fair to say there’s rarely been a settled period for the DUP leader since she took the reins from Peter Robinson, with so much expectation, back in January 2016.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride since – Brexit, RHI, devolution collapsing, unionism losing its Stormont majority, the Irish Sea border... it appears now the series of grave missteps have become too much for those who up until yesterday appeared to display blind loyalty to their leader.

Reports last night suggested a leadership contest was inevitable, which is entirely new territory for a party that has only had three leaders in its 50-year history, the latter two anointed rather than elected.

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It seems the realisation has dawned that if it doesn't move quickly then Mrs Foster will be leading them into next year's Stormont election, and if the opinion polls are to be believed, potential electoral disaster.

Yet this heave smacks of desperation.

As has been said on countless occasions over recent months, there is no obvious successor for the current leader, which is why she has limped on for so long.

Moreover, whoever steps into Mrs Foster's shoes is facing the same issues that have caused her so many problems.

Resolving issues around the protocol, implementing an Irish language act, commissioning abortion services and leading the region out of the pandemic are all tasks that will demand serious political mettle.

But if, as speculated, last week's assembly vote on conversion therapy has been the catalyst for this challenge, then it would suggest the latest wave of disquiet has originated among the DUP's Free Presbyterian wing.

For those who hark back to the days of Save Ulster from Sodomy and the derision of the LGBT+ community, this must seem like a victory, divine intervention almost, but to think a shift backwards will lead to electoral salvation is misguided.

We are witnessing a clash at the heart of the DUP between modernity and Christian fundamentalism, and it is imploding as a result.

There’s nothing but diminishing returns in efforts to take the party back to its founding values and the intolerance once peddled by Rev Ian Paisley.

Such a regressive strategy is likely to push people further from traditional, identity unionism.

"Dogs chasing a car," is how one Foster loyalist characterised the revolt last night, adding: "God knows what they'll do when they catch it."

Who emerges as leader from a vote of the party's 41 MPs, MLAs and peers will send a clear signal about the direction of regional politics over the coming years.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson or Gavin Robinson may indicate moderation, while Edwin Poots or Ian Paisley Jnr would suggest a lurch rightwards.

This is contest therefore about more than just the future of the DUP.

Stormont minister Edwin Poots

Ian Paisley Jnr. Picture from Parliament Live via The New European

Gavin Robinson. Picture Mark Marlow.

DUPs Jeffrey Donaldson. Picture by Hugh Russell.

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