The next DUP leader will face a daunting set of Northern Ireland challenges. So will Boris Johnson
Arlene Foster’s sudden resignation as leader of the Democratic Unionist party and first minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration is no storm in a teacup. It does not merely trigger an internal DUP crisis, although it certainly does that too. It creates a fresh challenge for Northern Ireland unionism more widely, for the rest of its politics more generally, for the management of Brexit in both parts of Ireland, for the peace process, for the future of the union and, not least, for Boris Johnson’s government.
Ms Foster’s leadership was a white-knuckle ride. She enjoyed none of the ascendancy within unionism that her predecessors could rely on. She led the DUP campaign to leave the European Union, only for Northern Ireland to vote remain. Finding the DUP holding the balance of power after the 2017 UK election, she recklessly overplayed her hand by opposing Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal. Her stubborn handling of Northern Ireland’s costly renewable heat initiative scandal, over which she had presided as enterprise minister, meant the devolved institutions were suspended for three years. When they resumed in 2020, she tried to implement a Brexit Northern Ireland protocol that her party loathes. In the end, though, it was none of this that caused her overthrow. Instead, it was her abstention in a vote for a ban on gay conversion therapies and her decision to resume talks with Dublin over the protocol that brought her down.