Brussels (Brussels Morning) After Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster announced she will resign and end June, the race for her successor began within her Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), RFI reported.
Her resignation came as she faced criticism from some 80 percent of her own regional and national lawmakers, calling for a vote of confidence and a change in party leadership. The party blamed her for bungling the Brexit negotiations and leaving Northern Ireland effectively closer to Ireland than the UK, a fact which has already sparked protest and riots among pro-British loyalists.
The traditionalist and conservative DUP now finds itself at a crossroads, its support dwindling in the polls and losing voters either to the more moderate Alliance Party, which rejects the sectarian divisions of Northern Ireland, or the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), which has splintered from DUP in 2007.
The choice of the DUP’s new leader will likely affect what kind of voters the party hopes to win back, with available candidates being either seen as even more moderate than Foster – whom many voters blasted on being too soft on gay and women’s rights – or a significantly more hardline figure, aiming to attract the most conservative unionist voters in Northern Ireland.
An early frontrunner is Stromont’s agriculture minister Edwin Poots, who opposes gay adoption and believes the Earth was created by God 6,000 years ago. Poots would likely appeal to the hardline Protestants in the party, while some believe he would also be a political pragmatist, attempting to make the best of the Northern Ireland Protocol without outright demanding it be scrapped.
The party’s leader in Westminster, Jeffrey Donaldson, would represent a more moderate approach, with some seeing him as even more liberal than Foster. However, his fierce opposition to the Protocol, which he argues was itself made in a breach of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, could make him an unifying figure within the party.
Sammy Wilson, another party representative in the House of Commons, would also mean a DUP even more opposed to the Protocol than it is now. Wilson threatened “guerilla warfare” against the protocol – a fiery choice of words considering Northern Ireland’s troubled past – and has warned that DUP would not be waiting until 2024 to vote on whether the Protocol should continue.
Former Belfast mayor Gavin Robinson, current MP for Belfast East, would also likely be seen as more moderate than Foster, despite his opposition to teaching children about LGBT families, but could also represent a clean slate for the party as the youngest likely candidate, at only 36 years old. He also believes the party should not ignore a potential future referendum on reunification with Ireland, preparing instead “to fight for the defence of the union”.