Northern Ireland Leader Quits as Brexit Deal Raises Tensions

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster laid out her plan to quit, sparking further upheaval at a time when London and Dublin are seeking to calm tensions in the region.

Foster’s exit as head of the Democratic Unionist Party and leader of the province risks amplifying instability in Northern Ireland, which has recently endured some of its worst violence in years. That was fueled in part by a Brexit settlement which essentially created an economic border between the region and mainland Britain.

Elements within her pro-British party believe Foster’s failure to prevent that deal undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K. and could ultimately hasten a united Ireland. More than half of the party’s lawmakers signed a letter calling for her to be replaced, according to local reports.

“The protocol being foisted upon Northern Ireland against the will of unionists has served to destabilize Northern Ireland in more recent times,” Foster said in a statement, as she laid out her plan to step down as DUP leader at the end of May and first minister a month later. “The future of unionism and Northern Ireland will not be found in division.”

While Foster opposed the so-called Northern Irish protocol, she did little to undermine it in practice. Among the potential contenders to succeed her is Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, who vehemently opposes the protocol and could seek to undermine its operation. That, in turn, risks heightening tensions with London, Dublin and Brussels, which sees the deal as the foundation for future links between the U.K. and EU.

At one point, Foster held significant power in British politics, as then-Prime Minister Theresa May relied on the DUP to stay in office. She lost that role in 2019, when Johnson’s big election win pushed the party into irrelevance in wider U.K. politics.

That left Foster powerless to stop Johnson agreeing to leave Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union and much of the single market.

This avoided the need for border checks on the island of Ireland, but introduced them for the first time on goods coming into the province from Britain, leading to delays and disruption, a failure which ultimately contributed to her downfall.

Ian Paisley, an evangelical preacher, founded the DUP in the 1970s to oppose power-sharing with Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland.

In the mid-1980s, Paisley led massive “Ulster Says No” rallies in Belfast, when at least 100,000 turned out to protest what they saw as a threat to the union. The party also walked out of the negotiations that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement, the accord cementing the peace process after decades of sectarian conflict.

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