Northern Ireland

Who will be Northern Ireland's next leader?

DUP Prime Minister Arlene Foster speaks in the Great Hall of the Stormont Parliament Buildings in Belfast, Northern Ireland on January 13, 2020.
DUP Prime Minister Arlene Foster speaks in the Great Hall of the Stormont Parliament Buildings in Belfast, Northern Ireland on January 13, 2020. Liam McBurney/Pool via REUTERS

A race to become Northern Ireland's first minister began on Thursday, after Arlene Foster announced her resignation amid party squabbles and riots over the impact of Brexit. There are several contenders, with the favourite being Edwin Poots, the minister for agriculture seen as a hardliner in the DUP.

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Arlene Foster announced Wednesday she would step down as Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader on May 28 and first minister at the end of June.

This after 80 per cent of regional and national lawmakers backed a change of leadership amid criticism of her handling of Brexit deals.

Her announcement adds to instability in the British province, where pro-British loyalists are concerned by the perceived growing power of Irish nationalists and post-Brexit trade barriers with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Earlier this month tempers boiled over into days of rioting across the province that saw at least 88 police officers injured.

Red line crossed

Foster resisted compromise on the terms of Britain's exit from the European Union when her party wielded huge power in propping up the government of former British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Her decision to throw DUP support behind May's successor Boris Johnson then backfired when he broke the party's "blood red line" and agreed to Brussels' demand for trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The resulting Northern Ireland Protocol leaves Northern Ireland within the EU's trading sphere, avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland but infuriating pro-British unionists by undermining the region's cherished place in the United Kingdom.

Although Foster has repeatedly called on the EU to scrap the protocol - something it says it will not do - some party figures have demanded an even harder line.

"Whoever succeeds Foster will have to begin his leadership career with some very straight talking about the difficulties of dumping the protocol," said Alex Kane, in the Belfast Telegraph.

Lurch to the right

No candidate has formally declared but the favourite for the leadership is regarded as Edwin Poots, a regional lawmaker serving as the agriculture minister of Northern Ireland.

Poots is considered as an ambitious hardliner within the DUP, a hard-right party with Protestant roots which sometimes regarded Foster as too moderate.

UK lawmakers Jeffrey Donaldson and Gavin Robinson are also contenders for the position, although both would be considered moderates compared to Foster.

Other names in the hat include Ian Paisley Jr, the son of the party's firebrand founder and Sammy Wilson, who sits in the UK parliament, and has been the party's hardline Brexit spokesman.

No clear direction

"The DUP is overwhelmingly conservative and will now almost certainly lurch to the right. But everyone in it is painfully aware this will paint them further into a corner," wrote Newton Emerson in the Irish Times.

"Most realise the pragmatic choice is to take the hit for setbacks and 'sell' them, as Foster tried to do with the protocol as recently as January. They just cannot bring themselves to do it."

But it was unclear how a new leader might shift the political fortunes of the DUP, which has been losing support to both the moderate cross community Alliance Party and the small hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

"There isn't a clear ideological direction for the party to go in and that's the problem with this coup," said Jon Tonge, politics professor at the University of Liverpool.

A harder line from a new leader on either Brexit or social issues could destabilise Northern Ireland's power-sharing government that the DUP leads with Irish nationalist rivals Sinn Fein under the terms of the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of political and sectarian bloodshed between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists.

(with wires)

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