Arlene Foster has told Sky News she will step down as DUP leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister, following calls within the party for a leadership contest.
In a statement, Mrs Foster said: “It is important to give space over the next few weeks for the Party Officers to make arrangements for the election of a new leader.”
She described serving the people of Northern Ireland as “the privilege of my life”.
The outgoing first minister added: “The future of unionism and Northern Ireland will not be found in division. It will only be found in sharing this place we are privileged to call home.”
It comes after 75% of the DUP’s Northern Ireland Assembly members signed a letter demanding a leadership contest.
Eight of the party’s 18 constituency associations submitted letters of concern over the leadership’s handling of the Northern Ireland Protocol and other issues.
Mrs Foster played down the threat when speaking to reporters yesterday afternoon, saying: “Stories on leadership come up from time to time, and it’s one of those times.”
On Wednesday afternoon, she released a statement saying that she would step down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party on the 20th of May and the first minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June.
Mrs Foster, in the six minute statement, reflected on a 18-year career in the Stormont Assembly, saying how proud she was of her achievements.
She said: “I am the first to recognise that there have been ups and downs over this last five and a half years (as party leader). The 2016 assembly election results and our party’s best ever Westminster result in 2017, stand out amongst the high points…
“Of course, along with the highs, there have been lows along the way. The three years without devolution caused untold harm to our public services.
“I am proud that there is a young generation of democratic unionists getting involved in politics and trying to shape Northern Ireland for the better. Over the last 12 months, I’ve been holding online meetings with young people, mainly from working class communities and encouraging them, especially the young women, to get involved. And I echo that encouragement today. Politics and debate is the only path to affect change in society.”
Former DUP special adviser Tim Cairns said the speed at which her downfall had come was a “surprise”.
He told Sky News: “I think most of us thought it was just another attack from the hardliners in the party. This has happened at breakneck speed. It’s caught a lot of people unawares. It’s caught Arlene Foster unawares… She did not expect that there had been people plotting for about the last week.
“Even yesterday lunchtime she didn’t realise there was quite this much opposition to her leadership.”
He said it had come about because of the “mixed messages” about Brexit, saying there was a need to vote down the Brexit protocol – but other messages that did not “sit well” with some in the party.
Mr Cairns said the speculation was that the role in future would be split between Westminster and the Assembly, with someone like Jeffrey Donaldson or Gavin Robinson as likely candidates. The only name in the frame to head up the party in Stormont, he said, was the current agriculture minister Edwin Poots.