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Arlene Foster on Wednesday announced she would step down as Northern Ireland first minister at the end of June after it transpired that she faced a challenge to her leadership of the Democratic Unionist party.
Her departure follows a turbulent period in Northern Ireland marked by a resurgence of violent unrest this month in part fuelled by unionist anger over the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU.
Pressure had been building on Foster since Tuesday after people close to the DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest political party, said some of its representatives at Stormont and Westminster had signed a letter calling for a leadership contest.
Foster initially shrugged off the move, telling the media she had “bigger things to worry about”.
But announcing her departure on Wednesday she said in a statement that it had been “the privilege of my life to serve the people of Northern Ireland as their first minister” since 2015, adding she was “the first to recognise there have been ups and downs over the last five and a half years”.
Foster will step down as DUP leader on May 28. Potential successors include MP Jeffrey Donaldson and Northern Ireland agriculture minister Edwin Poots.
Some observers suggested the DUP could split the roles of first minister and party leader.
Foster assumed the DUP leadership in December 2015, and faced a vote of no confidence at Stormont less than a year later over the so-called cash for ash scandal: an ill-fated renewable energy incentive scheme that could cost Northern Ireland as much as £490m.
The scandal prompted the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive involving the DUP and Sinn Féin, the nationalist party, and the devolved government was only restored last year.
“The three years without devolution caused untold harm to our public services and the [inquiry into the renewable energy scheme] was a difficult period,” Foster said on Wednesday.
More recent criticism of Foster’s leadership has centred on the party’s handling of Brexit as well as its electoral performance.
At the 2019 general election, the DUP lost two of its seats at Westminster as Northern Ireland’s nationalist parties overtook unionists to be the region’s largest group in the House of Commons.
The DUP had propped up former UK prime minister Theresa May’s minority government but squandered the opportunity to shape her proposed Brexit deal by rejecting it outright.
Boris Johnson, who while May was in Downing Street wooed the DUP by attending its annual conference, infuriated the party when he finalised his withdrawal agreement with the EU in 2019.
Unionists object to how the agreement treats Northern Ireland differently to Great Britain, and it has been a factor behind several days of violence in the region this month.
To avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and safeguard the peace process, the agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol places the region within the EU’s economic orbit and subject to its customs rules.
Foster initially displayed a pragmatic approach towards the protocol, but subsequently demanded its abolition.
“The protocol being foisted upon Northern Ireland against the will of unionists has served to destabilise Northern Ireland in more recent times,” she said on Wednesday.
Tim Cairns, a former DUP special adviser, said Foster’s successor was likely to be “more entrenched” on the protocol.
Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland deputy first minister and vice-president of Sinn Féin, said she had spoken to Foster and wished “Arlene and her family well in the time ahead”.
Asked if she was worried about working with Foster’s successor, O’Neill told reporters: “Regardless of who comes into the leadership position, if they want to work with the executive . . . then they have to work with power-sharing.”
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said Foster was a “truly dedicated public servant”.
“There are many young people, particularly young women, who will be inspired by her example to follow a path into politics,” he added.
This article was first published at https://www.ft.com/content/94217b78-9279-4457-926b-e34a33a85517