As Foster Quits, What Next for Northern Ireland and Brexit?

Arlene Foster’s resignation as Northern Ireland’s First Minister risks triggering more instability to a region already riven by sectarian strife and mounting concerns around the impact of Brexit. This part of the U.K. played a central role in the rupture with the European Union and the drawn-out acrimony around it.

What just happened?

On Wednesday, Foster laid out her plan to step down as head of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party next month and as first minister at the end of June. Foster has been under internal pressure for months, in part because she failed to stop the creation of an economic border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain as part of the Brexit divorce deal.

That angered many in her party, who feel Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K. is now under threat as nationalists push for a referendum to unite the north and south of Ireland after a century of partition. That contrasts with unionists who view Belfast as British, just like London or Manchester.

What does it mean for Brexit?

Her exit will almost certainly worsen tensions over the so-called protocol, which places checks between goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland. Inevitably, any successor will step up the DUP’s campaign against the mechanism. The scale of that campaign will depend on her replacement.

However, the reality is that London, Brussels and Dublin have little appetite to abolish the protocol, though are open to tweaks.

Her resignation “solves nothing when it comes to the protocol,” said Edward Burke, assistant professor of International Relations at Nottingham University, who is researching the effect of Brexit on the British-Irish security relationship. “Foster had an earned reputation as a pragmatic politician when it came to north-south relations. She was comfortable working on practical issues of north-south cooperation and often got on well with Irish government counterparts, even if such relations were strained as a result of the protocol.”

A more hardline leader “is likely to make relations with the Irish government more complicated and resolutions in Brussels more difficult,” Burke added.

What happens next?

The DUP is expected to hold a leadership contest for the first time in its history -- usually its leaders are chosen by consensus.

While the election rules have yet to be clarified, it’s likely the party’s elected representatives will choose the new leader. Foster will not leave her post for another month, which could allow for a clear successor to emerge.

Who could take over?

Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots could seek the job. He has been a staunch critic of the Brexit deal, and would likely rally the party against it, maybe even to the point of withdrawing co-operation with British, EU and Irish officials where possible.

Jeffrey Donaldson, a more moderate figure who leads the DUP’s lawmakers in the U.K. parliament, has long been seen as a possible contender. Deputy leader Nigel Dodds may be seen as too close to Foster.

Is the dynamic in Northern Ireland shifting?

Divisions will remain and tension is likely to escalate. In a worst-case scenario, a hardline successor who ratchets up rhetoric on Brexit risks stirring up more violence on the streets of Belfast and could bring down the region’s power-sharing assembly.

That could spur calls for a referendum on a united Ireland. The clamor for a border poll has grow since Brexit. Some 49% want to remain part of the U.K., and 43% want to exit, a poll for the BBC showed this month, but the unionists’ lead has narrowed in recent years.

In a best-case scenario, London and Brussels would agree enough concessions on the protocol to assuage unionist anger, while continuing to avoid the re-introduction of checkpoints on the Irish border, the reason it was created in the first place.

It’s all to play for.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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