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DUP turmoil has wider implications for Stormont

THE internal putsch that toppled Arlene Foster has thrown the DUP into a turmoil which has the potential to not only destabilise the Stormont Executive but also trigger an early assembly election.

Mrs Foster's position as DUP leader had been under considerable pressure for some time.

However, there was an assumption that she would be safe until an agreed challenger emerged from among the party's various factions, and that this was only a slender possibility.

That logic has been upended by this week's events. Mrs Foster has been forced out by colleagues who have no clear plan about who should replace her or an agreed blueprint for their future direction.

The irony that unionism's largest party finds itself so aimless on the eve of the centenary of partition and the creation of Northern Ireland will not be lost on many observers, both within and without the unionist tradition.

While the question of who leads the DUP is a matter for the party itself, it also has far-reaching implications for power-sharing.

Stormont's unique structures mean a new first minister can only take up office with Sinn Féin support.

In the current febrile atmosphere within the DUP and unionism more generally, it is not impossible that a new DUP leader might be elected with, for example, a pledge to never enact Irish language legislation and to boycott north-south bodies.

This scenario would pose enormous difficulties for Sinn Féin and other executive parties, making the sustainability of the current assembly highly questionable.

Sinn Féin is facing its own difficulties, with Foyle MLAs Martina Anderson and Karen Mullan being encouraged to consider their positions amid dysfunction in the party's Derry operation.

It would be a high-risk - as well as highly cynical - strategy for the DUP to engineer the circumstances that could force an early assembly election amid the coronavirus pandemic and loyalist street protests over policing and the Northern Ireland Protocol.

But given the difficulties the DUP is forecast to face in May 2022, when an election is scheduled, it may consider it a risk worth taking, despite all evidence to the contrary.

That these sorts of options are being floated points to the paucity of strategic thinking within unionism.

The DUP had pinned its hopes on Brexit but that has proved to be a complete disaster for the party, revealing an epic lack of judgment which was corporate rather than Mrs Foster's alone.

To stumble into an election at the present time would be another DUP misjudgement.

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