Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster resigns as DUP leader and first minister

Arlene Foster has said she will step down as DUP leader and first minister. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Digital Staff

Arlene Foster has announced she is to step down as DUP leader and first minister.

She said she will leave her DUP role on May 28 and resign as first minister at the end of June.

"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," she said.

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.

This afternoon's announcement follows the circulation of a letter yesterday urging DUP MPs and MLAs to record their dissatisfaction with Mrs Foster's leadership, which has come under increased pressure in recent days.

2016: Arlene Foster speaks to The Irish News about the RHI scheme

It is understood the letter, which was reported to have been signed by up to three-quarters of MLAs, also called for the resignation of deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who lost his North Belfast seat in the 2019 Westminster election.

Earlier today DUP Agriculture minister Edwin Poots, who is viewed as a potential successor to Arlene Foster, pulled out of a scheduled north-south meeting with a Dublin government ministerial counterpart.

Arlene Foster cartoons by Ian Knox

Mr Poots’ move came amid recent uncertainty about the DUP’s continued participation in north-south political structures due to their opposition to Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Poots is viewed as more of a hardliner than Mrs Foster and his no-show was interpreted by some as a signal of intent in the wider internal leadership heave against Mrs Foster.

In 2016 Arlene Foster was pictured with alleged UDA commander Dee Stitt, then chief executive of Charter NI

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis tweeted: "Arlene is a truly dedicated public servant, devoting her political career to her constituents for over 18 years and the people of NI as FM for several years. There are many young people, particularly young women, who will be inspired by her example to follow a path into politics.

"I wish her all the best and look forward to continuing to work with her in the days and weeks ahead, delivering for all the people of NI."

Read Michelle O'Neill's full statement following Arlene Foster's resignation

DUP MP Nigel Dodds tweeted: "Arlene has dedicated her life to defending the Union and moving Northern Ireland forward. She has demonstrated great courage and is an example for women in public life.

"Thank you Arlene. It's been a privilege to work alongside you."

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2019: Robin Swann says Arlene has radicalised nationalism

DUP MP Gavin Robinson tweeted: "There will be more to say about lies ahead in the days to come, but for now, I want to thank Arlene personally for her dedicated service to Northern Ireland.

"She has been a constant source of encouragement to me and my colleagues throughout the province. Facing difficulties with courage and determination; and sacrificing so much over all of us over her 18 years in elected politics, I pay tribute to her, her leadership and her commitment to our country."

Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill wished Arlene Foster and her family well.

“I spoke to Arlene today and she informed me of her decision to step down. I wished her and and her family well.

"I have worked alongside Arlene Foster this past year in what has been a difficult and challenging time for everyone with the unexpected onset of the Covid pandemic.

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Childhood experiences of the Troubles shaped Arlene Foster’s political outlook

"Throughout the pandemic I acknowledge the efforts Arlene Foster has made as first minister, and the service that she has given in working with the rest of the Executive as we have battled the biggest health crisis in a generation."

Ms O'Neill said the incoming DUP leader "should recognise that the political landscape across our island has changed".

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has sent Arlene Foster his best wishes and paid tribute to the DUP leader and first minister's role in "guiding Northern Ireland through this challenging period".

"I want to wish Arlene the very best for the future. She has served during what has been a period of considerable change and challenge in Northern Ireland.

"She has worked hard over many years as an elected representative for the constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

"I know especially how proud Arlene is of her homeplace of County Fermanagh. Political leadership is often not easy and takes courage."

Mr Martin described the re-establishment of the Executive in January 2020, with Mrs Foster as first minister and Michelle O'Neill as Deputy First Minister, as a "key development in supporting peace and stability for all the people of these islands".

"The Northern Ireland Executive under their leadership has had to grapple with the Covid pandemic almost since the beginning, and I pay tribute to Arlene's role in guiding Northern Ireland through this challenging period," he added.

"As the first female leader of the DUP and the first female First Minister of Northern Ireland, working alongside the deputy First Minister, she sent a strong message to women about what can be achieved in and through politics."

Mr Martin also said he had had a "positive working relationship" with Mrs Foster over the years.

"In particular I valued the constructive engagement, notwithstanding our differences, we have had in our respective roles as Taoiseach and first minister," he said.

"As a person who has personal experience of the suffering that violence brings, Arlene knows more than most how difficult it is, but also how important it is, to work together for the peace and prosperity for all.

"I am sure that she will continue to make an important contribution to public life. I send my best wishes to her and her family for the future."

Dublin's foreign minister Simon Coveney tweeted: "Best wishes to DUPleader Arlene Foster & her family this evening.

"While we bring different perspectives to some issues, she has worked sincerely, tirelessly & with determination for her party & for NI as First Minister."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "I want to extend my personal good wishes to Arlene Foster and her family as she steps back from frontline politics and prepares to stand down as First Minister in June.

"We disagree on almost everything but she has clearly been a committed servant to her party for a long time.

"The circumstances that have led to the First Minister's resignation are deeply concerning. That a political leader would be removed from office by their party for failing to support conversion therapy is distressing and will cause some alarm for members of our LGBT+ community. They should know that we will not roll back on the progress we've made or deny them their rights."

Mr Eastwood said whoever takes over as DUP leader and first minister will inherit the "same febrile political situation" that politicians have been dealing with for months.

"Neither the British government nor the European Union will alter their position on the Northern Ireland Protocol," he said.

"Regardless of personnel changes, the fundamental problems have not changed and therefore neither have the solutions.

"We need parties and political leaders who are committed to the institutions of devolution and want to make this place work."

SDLP deputy leader and Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said: "Whatever our political differences, as a minister it was always clear to me that Arlene Foster was passionate about her constituents and Northern Ireland.

"On a personal level, I have no doubt this will be a difficult time for Arlene and her family."

Read Arlene Foster's full 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.

"As First Minister it is important that I complete work on a number of important issues for Northern Ireland alongside other Executive colleagues. Northern Ireland and its people have been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and there remains more work to be done to steer us thorough the pandemic and to lessen its impact on the lives of everyone.

Michelle O'Neill shakes hands with Arlene Foster at Martin McGuinness's funeral in 2017. Picture by Darran Marshall/BBC

"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. I first entered the Assembly in 2003 and undoubtedly the journey of the last eighteen years has been memorable. There are many people who have helped and supported me throughout that period and I will always been grateful for the kindness and support shown to me by them.

"Whilst there have been many difficult and testing times for the Executive 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.

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"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.

"Whilst the focus is on me today I recognise that will pass. For me my decision to enter politics was never about party or person, it was about speaking up for the voiceless and building a Northern Ireland which could prosper and be at peace within the United Kingdom.

"I am the first to recognise there have been ups and downs over the last five and a half years.

"The 2016 Assembly election result and our Party’s best ever Westminster result in 2017 stand out amongst the high points when the electorate sent a clear message that they wanted to keep Northern Ireland moving forward.

"The Confidence and Supply Agreement was able to bring one billion pounds of extra spending for everyone in Northern Ireland. Our priorities were not narrow but based on more investment in mental health and hospitals, bringing broadband to rural communities, improving our roads and ensuring funding to encourage more shared housing and education.

"For our innocent victims, I am proud we battled together and whilst too late for some, we finally secured a truly deserved pension for you.

"For our armed forces, the Veterans’ Commissioner is in place. You have an advocate to stand up for you and ensure your voice is heard at the heart of government.

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2017: Arlene Foster and RHI

"Of course as with highs there were lows along the way.

"The three years without devolution caused untold harm to our public services and the RHI Inquiry was a difficult period. The Protocol being foisted upon Northern Ireland against the will of unionists has served to destabilise Northern Ireland in more recent times.

"Whilst there is still a job of work to do, I am proud that there is a young generation of Democratic Unionists getting involved in politics and trying to shape Northern Ireland for the better.

"Over the last twelve months, I have been holding online meetings every week with young people mainly from working class communities and encouraging them especially the young women to get involved.

"I echo that encouragement today. Politics and debate is the only path to effect change in society. You will and can be the MPs, MLAs and Councillors of tomorrow.

"My election as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party broke a glass ceiling and I am glad 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.

"To the hundreds of Party supporters who have been in touch over the last few days, I say a sincere thank you for the opportunities to serve you and the support you have given me. For almost five and a half years I have been incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to lead the Democratic Unionist Party.

"I have 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.

"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."

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