Thursday

30th Jun 2022

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

EU starts legal action against UK over Northern Ireland

The EU-UK deal was designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland by applying checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, creating checks on the Irish Sea. London is reluctant to put that into place.

Feature

At Northern Irish border, Brexit risks hard-won peace

In Protestant and Catholic communities where the 1998 Good Friday agreement put an end to armed conflict, the possibility of a hard border on the island of Ireland brings back fearful memories. A new border could unravel that peace process.

Column

One rubicon after another

We realise that we are living in one of those key moments in history, with events unfolding exactly the way Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt describes them: a sudden crisis, rushing everything into overdrive.

News in Brief

  1. Russia threatens Norway over goods transit
  2. Russia urges Nato not to build bases in Sweden, Finland
  3. New president for European Committee of the Regions
  4. Gas flows from Spain to Morocco, after Western Sahara row
  5. BioNTech, Pfizer test 'universal' coronavirus vaccine
  6. UK sanctions second-richest Russian businessman
  7. Hungary permits emergency supervision of energy firms
  8. Bulgaria expels 70 alleged Russian spies

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  3. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers for culture: Protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage!
  5. Reuters InstituteDigital News Report 2022
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBHow price increases affect construction workers

Latest News

  1. If Russia collapses — which states will break away?
  2. EU Parliament interpreters stage strike
  3. EU's post-Covid billions flowing into black hole
  4. Nato expands and reinforces on Russian flank
  5. EU Commission says it cannot find messages with Pfizer CEO
  6. EU ministers sign off on climate laws amid German infighting
  7. EU presidency still looking for asylum relocation pledges
  8. Finland and Sweden to join Nato, as Erdoğan drops veto

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us