8th Dec 2023

Departure of Foster leaves Northern Ireland on edge

  • DUP leader Arlene Foster (r) at a meeting with EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and his team (Photo: European Commission)

The shake-up at the helm of Northern Ireland's main unionist party comes as the fallout from Brexit has pushed the province to its worst violence seen since the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

On Wednesday (28 April), Arlene Foster announced that she was stepping down as head of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party next month and as the first minister at the end of June.

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Foster has been under internal pressure for months because of the party's annoyance at her failure to stop the creation of an economic border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain as part of the Brexit deal.

Many in her party think she has not opposed forcefully enough the post-Brexit arrangements on Northern Ireland.

Under Foster's leadership, the DUP backed Brexit - even though the majority in Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU - and then backed prime minister Boris Johnson, who promised not to allow checks in the Irish Sea.

But Johnson eventually agreed to the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit divorce deal, leaving Foster in limbo.

The EU has since said the UK unilaterally suspended some of the implementation of those internal UK checks and started a legal procedure.

The economic checks on the Irish Sea had become necessary as the EU and the UK wanted to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland that could re-spark tensions between unionists and Irish republicans.

At the same time, the hard Brexit chosen by subsequent London governments meant that checks would become unavoidable, as the UK left the bloc's customs union and single market.

Matthew O'Toole, a Social Democratic and Labour Party politician, and Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly said that a more hardline DUP leader will seek to use the protocol as a reason "to create noise".

He said removing the protocol is "not realistic and not what most people want in Northern Ireland".

"The DUP is seeking to deflect responsibility for the consequences of Brexit," he said, adding that DUP held the balance of power in Westminster during the government of Theresa May and had the power to create a different outcome.

Many in Foster's party feel Northern Ireland's place in the UK is now under threat, while there has been nationalist talk of a referendum to unite Ireland after a century of partition.

Meanwhile, many unionists are questioning the value of the Stormont Assembly, the devolved government in Belfast with a joint executive shared between unionists and nationalists.

Foster pledged her alliance to that devolution, saying: "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," she said, quoted by the Belfast News Letter.

O'Toole said it could spell trouble for the future of Northern Ireland if the new DUP leadership does not sign up to the system of shared institutions.

Foster was also seen as pragmatic, and softer compared to the DUP's hardline conservative stance on social issues.

She has recently abstained, in a vote where most of her party voted against a ban on so-called "gay conversion therapies", which caused a stir among her party ranks.

The DUP is expected to hold a leadership contest for the first time in its history, as its leader is usually chosen by consensus.

A successor to Foster is likely to step up the DUP's efforts to try to stop the protocol from ever being implemented. Ahead of elections next year, the DUP also wants to make sure it retains its leading position among unionist parties.

"Northern Ireland has a unique society and the protocol is designed to reflect that, that it is connected to both Ireland and the UK," O'Toole said, adding that it sot reasonable to request to redraw the agreement.

He added the EU should show flexibility in certain areas, and also help to maximise the benefits of the protocol.

Northern Ireland agriculture minister Edwin Poots may seek to run, who has been vehemently opposed to the protocol, and the more moderate Jeffrey Donaldson, who leads the DUP's lawmakers in the UK parliament could also join the race.

In April, the province saw the worst violence since the peace treaty - and tensions are likely to escalate.

"The unrest was not just about the protocol," he said.

O'Toole pointed out that regarding the unrest "it is wrong to assume that [they were] wholly rational political protests", they were more of a consequence of the socio-economic, cultural context of Northern Ireland.

The protesters were often children from poor, working class families, in some cases assembled by organised gangs.

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