Why Arlene Foster May Be Too Moderate for Northern Ireland: Q&A

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster may be on the verge of being forced out as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, with an internal no-confidence vote in the offing. Discontent with her leadership has been simmering for months, with some in the pro-British grouping believing her opposition to the Brexit deal which placed a border in the Irish Sea hasn’t been strong enough.

The immediate trigger for a challenge stems from her decision to abstain on a vote banning gay conversion therapy, which may have further antagonized her socially conservative party, local reports say.

What’s happening?

More than half of the party’s lawmakers have signed a letter calling for her to be replaced, according to the Belfast Newsletter newspaper. If a no-confidence vote is called, Foster could fight on or simply step down, igniting a leadership contest.

Why is Foster under pressure?

In part because of Brexit. The Northern Irish protocol within the Brexit divorce deal effectively means goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland face customs checks. That’s angered her critics, who believe it undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K. Foster has been blamed for not more forcefully opposing the protocol.

While the DUP has withdrawn from meetings with the Irish government in protest at the protocol, one of its ministers met their Irish counterpart on Tuesday, adding to discontent.

Separately, Foster has faced criticism from elements within her party for abstaining on a motion to ban gay conversion therapy. Much of her party voted against it.

Who could replace her?

Agriculture minister Edwin Poots may run, while Jeffrey Donaldson could also seek the job. Nigel Dodds has been deputy leader since 2008. He may be seen as too close to Foster. Poots, in particular, has been vehemently opposed to the protocol and may step up the party’s campaign against it if he wins the role.

What are the ramifications if Foster goes?

While Foster opposed the protocol, in practice she did little to undermine it beyond her rhetoric. That could change if she’s replaced with an opponent who takes a tougher line. Pro-British parts of Belfast have been gripped by riots in recent weeks, with Brexit one factor behind the violence.

Foster’s exit could also have consequences for Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly. Under the assembly’s rules, there must be a first minister at all times. If Foster goes as leader, she will also have quit as first minister. But the DUP could choose not to nominate a replacement. The assembly could collapse, triggering yet another bout of political instability.

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