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All You Need To Know About The Race To Succeed Arlene Foster As DUP Leader

All You Need To Know About The Race To Succeed Arlene Foster As DUP Leader
4 min read

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is choosing a new leader to replace Arlene Foster, who announced on Wednesday she would be resigning as party leader and Northern Ireland's First Minister in the coming weeks.

Foster, who became the party's first female leader in 2016, had little choice but to stand down after around 80% of the party's assembly members (MLAs) and MPs this week launched a coup against her leadership by signing motion of no confidence.

The contest is set to be the first in the party's 50-year history. Foster and her predecessors faced no competition and as a result were all effectively coronated as leaders of the DUP.

Unlike other political parties elsewhere in the UK, DUP members will not have a say choosing the party's new leader. Only the 27 MLAs and eight MPs will be able to vote. Party chairman Lord Morrow is expected to announce the rules of the contest in the next few days.

What's at stake?

The contest comes at a pivotal moment — both the party and Northern Ireland.

The DUP, which not long ago held the balance of power in Westminster after a strong performance at the 2017 general election, is dwindling in the polls and finds itself at an existential crossroads: lurch further to the right and it risks losing support to the centrist Alliance Party, move towards the centre ground and it could shed voters to the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

The people of Northern Ireland will get their chance to judge the new leadership when they vote in the assembly election in May next year. That is not a long time away for the DUP's next leader.

Foster's successor will take over as party leader and Northern Ireland's First Minister at a time of unrest in the province and amid warnings that its political institutions are in a precarious position. 

Over the last few weeks there have been riots on the streets of Northern Ireland amid loyalist frustration with several issues, including Brexit's impact on the province's relationship with the UK.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by UK and EU negotiators in Brexit talks, was designed to avoid a contentious hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

However, it led to the creation of an economic border in the Irish Sea, despite Prime Minister Johnson repeatedly insisting he would not sign up to such an arrangement. Now, an array of checks take place on goods heading from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which many unionists believe is an assault on their identity and threatens the province's place in the UK. 

Foster did not support the Northern Ireland Protocol but has been accused of botching Brexit by allowing the UK and EU to create barriers between the province and Great Britain. 

A DUP leader who is prepared to go further than Foster to torpedo the Protocol could destablise the party's delicate power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein and other parties in Stormont.

Who is in the running?

DUP figures see the highly-experienced Edwin Poots as the frontrunner to succeed Foster. 

He is currently the agriculture minister in Stormont, having previously held several misterial positions, and has been responsible for implementing the infrastructure required for post-Brexit checks on goods entering from the rest of the UK.

He has done so reluctantly, however, due to his opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Poots, 55, appeals to the fundamentalist wing of the party through his fiercely socially-conservative and evangical views. He has described same-sex marriage as "abominable" and when Foster first became leader said her most "important job" was that of a "wife, mother and daughter". 

Speaking about the Big Bang and evolution in 2007, Poots said: "You’re telling me that cosmic balls of dust gathered and there was an explosion? “We’ve had lots of explosions in Northern Ireland and I’ve never seen anything come out of that that was good".

However, DUP figures believe Poots can be pragmatic and prepared to put aside his hardline views to work with others.

He announced his candidacy on Thursday afternoon.The biggest threat to Poots is expected to be Jeffrey Donaldson, the MP for Lagan Valley.

He launched his leadership campaign on Monday morning, vowing to unite the DUP after a "very difficult period for our party".

Donaldson is regarded as a strong media performer and has previously been tipped to lead the party.

Like many DUP members, Donaldson is an evangelical Christian but his moderate tone compared to Poots makes him what party sources describe as more of a "compromise" candidate.

However, he is also seen as potentially being "continuity" Foster, having defected to the DUP from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) with the outgoing leader in 2004.