image captionArlene Foster became DUP leader in December 2015
The Democratic Unionist Party is to begin the process of appointing a new leader after the resignation of Arlene Foster.
The NI first minister said she will step down as DUP leader on 28 May and as first minister at the end of June.
She had faced an internal revolt with about 80% of the party’s Stormont and Westminster ranks backing a change of leadership.
A senior DUP source said removing Mrs Foster was a “total mess”.
The source added that it could lead to a Northern Ireland Assembly election this year, even though the next vote for the power-sharing assembly is not due to take place until May next year.
Mrs Foster, 50, had been DUP leader since December 2015.
The following month she was appointed first minister of Northern Ireland, becoming the first woman and the youngest person to hold both jobs.
Announcing her resignation on Wednesday, Mrs Foster said it had been the privilege of her life to “serve the people of Northern Ireland as their first minister and to represent my home constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone”.
Mrs Foster added that as she prepared to “depart the political stage”, Northern Ireland would only prosper if built on the “foundations of successful and durable devolution”.
Focus now shifts to the search for Mrs Foster’s replacement.
image captionMrs Foster was the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party
The outgoing first minister said it was important to give space over the coming weeks for the party officers to make arrangements for the election of a new leader.
Who could replace Mrs Foster?
There has been speculation of a split role, with one person for first minister and then a second person as party leader at Westminster.
Possible contenders include Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, who has been tipped to take over as first minister, while Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson could vie for the party leader role.
image captionPossible leadership contenders include Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Edwin Poots and Gavin Robinson
On Thursday, DUP MLA Jim Wells, who lost the party whip at Stormont in 2018 after criticising the leadership, told BBC NI’s Good Morning Ulster programme that he believed that Mr Poots was the “frontrunner” for the leadership of the party.
He said Mr Poots had “vast experience” and a “shrewd head on his shoulders”.
Mr Wells, a former NI health minister, said he thought the new leader must take “radical action” that they believe is “required to put the party back on a sound footing”.
He said the new leader would “review all aspects of the party structures and where we have been going, because there has been a view that some staff have had too strong an influence into policy making”.
A new DUP leader is likely to be elected before the end of May but a senior party source says Sinn Féin may demand concessions on the Irish language or LGBT rights before agreeing to the election of a new first minister.
“I don’t think any of them have gamed out what is likely to happen now,” said the source, who asked not to be named.
image captionA senior DUP source said Sinn Féin may demand concessions on Irish language or LGBTQ rights before agreeing to a new first minister
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill – the joint head of Northern Ireland’s government along with Mrs Foster – said the “incoming DUP leader should recognise that the political landscape across our island has changed”.
“Within the executive and assembly, Sinn Féin will work with all parties to progress social reform, political change and economic prosperity – but we will robustly oppose damaging policies or regressive throwback politics of the past.”
Without Sinn Féin support, a new first minister cannot be elected.
The DUP source told the BBC: “I would expect negotiations to take place over the election of a new first minister but Sinn Féin will seek to extract movement on a number of issues.
“Unless there is a agreement I can see the issue being allowed to drift over the summer when not much happens and then a possible election in the autumn.”
Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy told the BBC that, on a personal level, the situation was “a very difficult situation” for Mrs Foster.
image captionDeputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she had a decent if challenging relationship with Mrs Foster
“We have a responsibility to continue on with delivering government. We are in a five-party coalition, which is always difficult to manage when one of those parties, one of the larger parties, is in such a state of turmoil,” he told Good Morning Ulster.
“It’s been clear for some time now that the DUP have been at war with itself and that disfunction has impacted on the executive and impacted on our ability to do business.”
Mr Murphy said it would be “irresponsible” to have an early election in advance of next May.
“There is an election due next May and I think we all have a responsibility to try and manage the situation through to then and we can’t allow turbulence within one party to contaminate the rest of the executive in that regard,” he said.
Former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott told the programme the move will leave the Stormont executive “extremely unstable”.
“Particularly when you have factions there who find it difficult at the best of times to work together, I think it will have a very destabilising impact on Stormont and how it operates.”
Alliance Party leader and NI Justice Minister Naomi Long said she believed Mrs Foster had been made a scapegoat for the DUP’s “strategic errors”.
image captionNI Justice Minister Naomi Long said she believed Mrs Foster had been made a scapegoat for the DUP’s “strategic errors”
“I think any new leader coming in needs to confront reality and start dealing with the practicalities of the protocol, rather than holding out the hope that it’s going to be scrapped, because it’s that kind of process that I think has ultimately undermined the confidence that the community has in their leadership,” Ms Long said.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he is worried about politics in Northern Ireland and was surprised at the pace of Mrs Foster’s resignation.
“I do worry about many things in relation to politics in Northern Ireland. It’s fragile, it’s very divisive, opinions are very polarised and people like me and others have to find a way of building relations that can cope with that division and give political leadership at a time when it’s badly needed,” he said.
Mr Coveney said he is confident that a high-level meeting of the British and Irish governments will happen within the coming months, but hopefully within weeks.
How would a leadership election work?
Only a small number of the DUP membership – MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) and MPs – will get to vote in a leadership contest.
There are 27 MLAs that hold the party whip – including Mrs Foster – and eight MPs.
If a contest does take place, it will be the first in the DUP’s 50-year history.
DUP rules say a leadership election should be called by 30 April, although that date could now potentially pass by.
Party officers will ultimately decide the selection process.
Normally the leadership election is simply a formality and the existing leader continues in their role, but other candidates are free to challenge them.
The role of first minister is separate, but as the largest party from the largest grouping (unionism) in the assembly, the DUP is entitled to nominate someone to hold the post of first minister.
Once Mrs Foster steps down as first minister at the end of June, the DUP would then be asked to nominate a replacement within seven days and a vote would be held in the assembly.
If a replacement is not nominated, then the Northern Ireland secretary is obliged to call an assembly election.
How did we get here?
Mrs Foster has endured a turbulent time as DUP leader and the fall-out from Brexit – which the party supported – has put particular pressure on the party’s top brass as it faces having to weather the storm caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, which imposed a border down the Irish Sea.
The aftermath of Brexit caused friction both internally and between the party and some of its core voters who are unhappy at the deal which led to the Irish Sea border.
It has also been suggested recent changes to NI’s abortion laws and the commitment to implement an Irish language act were causing concerns with some elected DUP representatives ahead of next year’s assembly election.
On Tuesday it emerged a letter of no-confidence was circulated among the party’s MLAs and MPs. More than 20 assembly members and four MPs are understood to have signed it.
There was also pressure from councillors, with concerns ranging from the NI Protocol, abortion legislation, same-sex marriage, policing and the recent gay conversion debate at Stormont.
What has been said about Arlene Foster herself?
Mrs Foster, 50, had been DUP leader since December 2015.
The following month, she was appointed first minister of Northern Ireland, becoming the first woman and the youngest person to hold both jobs.
Colleagues from across the political divide have extended their best wishes to Mrs Foster.
Deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill said the pair had a decent, if challenging relationship.
It is understood Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill will still jointly chair a meeting of the Stormont executive later on Thursday.
When the two leaders spoke on Wednesday they said it was important the meeting happen, ahead of Covid restrictions being further eased in Northern Ireland on Friday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson thanked Mrs Foster “for her dedication to the people of Northern Ireland”.
I want to thank Arlene Foster @DUPleader for her dedication to the people of Northern Ireland over many years. She will continue to play a vital role as First Minister until June and I hope that she stays in public service for years to come.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) April 28, 2021
NI Secretary Brandon Lewis said Mrs Foster was a dedicated public servant who had inspired young women to follow her example and go into politics.
Taoiseach (Irish PM) Michéal Martin said political leadership was often not easy and took courage.
“I have had a positive working relationship with Arlene in a variety of roles over the years,” Mr Martin said.
“In particular I valued the constructive engagement, notwithstanding our differences, we have had in our respective roles as taoiseach and first minister.”