Northern Ireland news

Prospect of first leadership contest in DUP's history as Arlene Foster faces no confidence vote

Arlene Foster is facing disquiet from within the DUP’s ranks

THE first leadership contest in the DUP's history looked like a distinct possibility last night as Arlene Foster faced an imminent no confidence vote.

A letter circulated yesterday urged MPs and MLAs to record their dissatisfaction with Mrs Foster's leadership, which has come under increased pressure in recent days.

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.

In an acknowledgement that a heave against its leader was underway, a DUP statement last night said the party "conducts its business in accordance with its constitution and rules".

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It said officers would "oversee the conduct and organisation of its internal democratic electoral processes".

"Whilst understanding that there will be from time-to-time public interest in party processes, these issues, in the first instance, are matters for members of the party and we are not able to make any further comment at this time," the statement said.

If a leadership contest does take place, only a small pool of MPs, MLAs and peers will be entitled to vote.

As speculation about Mrs Foster's future was intensifying yesterday, former health minister Jim Wells suggested her leadership of the DUP was still secure because nobody wants the party’s top job.

The South Down MLA, who had the party whip withdrawn three years ago after a fall-out with the DUP leadership, said the “cupboard is bare” when it comes to a prospective replacement for the beleaguered Mrs Foster.

Mr Wells was speaking after it emerged that almost half of the DUP’s 18 constituency associations sent letters to party chairman Lord Morrow, voicing concern about the abstention of Mrs Foster and four other MLAs from last week’s assembly vote to ban gay conversion therapy.

The News Letter also reported a senior DUP politician saying there “most definitely is unrest” in the party, along with threats by councillors to resign.

Concern among DUP elected representatives and activists centres on both the conversion therapy vote and ministers’ recent involvement in north-south bodies, despite the party initially indicating in its ‘five point plan’ it would boycott such engagement over opposition to the Irish Sea border.

One DUP member told the newspaper that representatives were worried they would receive a frosty reception at this year’s Twelfth celebrations.

The party has been sending mixed signals in recent weeks in regards to its policy on north-south bodies, with Mrs Foster last week insisting it was “simply not the case” that there was a boycott, and DUP economy minister Diane Dodds also attending a north-south meeting.

Mr Wells, who was speaking before news of the letter of no confidence emerged, said he’d seen four of the eight letters sent to Lord Morrow.

“The letters didn’t call for leadership change but said there was widespread unhappiness about the conversion therapy vote and the north-south bodies,” he said.

“Currently there’s no appetite for a leadership heave because the cupboard is bare when it comes to a successor.”

He said becoming DUP leader could “end your political career”.

“You can’t be at Westminster and be first minister but there’s no way an MP is going to resign and trigger a by-election because seats that were once safe no longer are,” he said.

“There’s also big political hurdles up ahead like the protocol, an Irish language act and economic recovery from Covid – taking on the leadership now would be a poison chalice.”

Mr Wells said despite internal party disquiet there was nonetheless a “begrudging respect” for Mrs Foster.

“Even her critics can see that Arlene has been dealt a difficult hand,” he said.

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