Arlene Foster appeared to be fighting for her survival as Northern Ireland’s First Minister on Tuesday night amid claims that dozens of DUP politicians had signed a letter of no confidence in her.
The letter has not yet been made public but is said to contain the signatures of at least 21 Stormont Assembly members and four MPs, and comes 24 hours after 18 constituency associations submitted letters of concerns.
It comes amid mounting frustration within the party over the leadership’s handling of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the post-Brexit trading arrangements which have caused significant disruption for traders moving goods across the Irish Sea.
Despite Mrs Foster being a vocal opponent of the protocol and demanding it be scrapped, some in the party believe she failed to take a hard enough stance over what they believe to be a “betrayal” by Boris Johnson.
Others in the party, which is associated with the Free Presbyterian Church, also believe her to be too liberal on social issues.
Her allies believe she has been unfairly blamed for the decision by Westminster to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland, while Mrs Foster also chose last week to abstain in a highly charged debate on the banning of gay conversion therapy.
Letter would be ‘hard to survive’
If the scale of the rebellion is accurate, as reported by the Belfast News Letter, it would constitute more than two thirds of the party’s representatives in Belfast and half of its members in Westminster.
While the letter had not been formally submitted on Tuesday, a number of DUP sources told The Telegraph they believed it would be hard for Mrs Foster to survive if the number of signatories was correct.
On Tuesday evening it was reported that the letter stated that the signatories no longer had confidence in “Mrs Foster or the leadership”, which has been interpreted as an attempt to also remove Lord Dodds as the party’s deputy.
It was suggested that under the party rulebook, Mrs Foster could be removed within days because the DUP leader must be re-elected annually before 30 April each year.
While this is normally seen as a rubber stamping exercise, the scale of the rebellion suggests that it could be used as an opportunity to oust her unless she steps down or agrees to a challenge.
Mrs Foster is awaiting further details before considering her next steps, insiders said.
However, attempting to downplay speculation over her future earlier on Tuesday, Mrs Foster told reporters: “Stories on leadership come up from time to time, and it’s one of those times.
“So we’ll just deal with it and move on because I’ve bigger things to do, including getting us through this Covid pandemic, including listening to the concerns of working-class communities.”
Mrs Foster was also claimed to have pulled out of a meeting on Tuesday evening with Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, shortly after reports of the letter began circulating.
However, sources later said that the meeting had merely been rescheduled for Thursday.
The DUP said: “Whilst understanding that there will be from time-to-time public interest in party processes, these issues, in the first instance, are matters for members of the party and we are not able to make any further comment at this time.”
Frustrations over Brexit process
There has been growing discontent among DUP members about Mrs Foster’s leadership in recent months.
The primary source of concern is her handling of the Brexit process. The DUP is facing anger from the wider loyalist and unionist community for the introduction of an Irish Sea border.
Critics have accused Mrs Foster of failing to use the party’s influence at Westminster – particularly during its confidence and supply deal with the Conservatives – to secure a Brexit deal that saw Northern Ireland leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.
Poor polling numbers have exacerbated the discontent within the party faithful.
Mrs Foster’s decision to abstain in a vote on gay conversion therapy last week appears to have further agitated sections of the party’s grassroots.
However, while acknowledging that frustration among some DUP figures had been growing for “some time”, party insiders on Tuesday questioned the logic behind trying to replace Mrs Foster at such a precarious time.
“The big difficulty is how does this change any of the issues they are unhappy with,” one said. “The Northern Ireland Protocol for instance, Arlene is not to blame for that and removing her doesn’t change the fundamentals of that.
“The abortion legislation has been imposed from Westminister. People are panicking and thinking we must do something. But I don’t think it’s going to solve it.”