Under Arlene Foster, the DUP propped up a UK government, and she became the most powerful woman in Northern Ireland’s 100 year history. But it didn’t last. After bringing down Theresa May over the Brexit ‘backstop', there is an irony that it’s the same issue of an Irish border that has, in part, cost Arlene Foster her job. The DUP lost their influence over prime ministers when Boris Johnson secured a majority for the Conservatives in the 2019 election.
Arlene Foster and her party could no longer hold the Tory prime minister’s feet to the fire and so he was able to deliver Brexit by signing up to a deal with the EU that the DUP opposed. The Northern Ireland Protocol put an effective border down the Irish Sea, separating it from the rest of the UK. It happened on Arlene Foster’s watch - unforgivable in the eyes of both hardline loyalists and middle class unionists. This Protocol was partly behind the fury on the streets this month, but it wasn’t the only issue behind Foster’s downfall. She also alienated the religious foundation of the party by abstaining on legislation to ban so-called gay conversion therapy and she allowed Westminster to legislate for abortion rights in Northern Ireland without too much fuss.
She was toppled by an open revolt and now change is coming - but what kind? The next leader cannot undo the Northern Ireland Protocol - that will be a decision for the UK government and the EU. There is also no appetite to go back to the old firebrand fundamentalism of Ian Paisley’s DUP. The only ‘win’ for the next DUP leader and first minister of Northern Ireland is to galvanise the unionists behind a cause - and party sources tell me that cause is likely to be getting tougher on Sinn Fein and their goal of a united Ireland. But harder lines make it harder for compromise. The DUP and Sinn Fein - two opposing parties - must find a way to continue sharing power in Northern Ireland, or devolution will once again be under threat of collapsing completely.
Arlene Foster’s time in office has been turbulent. She had the ear of two prime ministers and took her party into corridors of power that her predecessors could never have dreamed of - but it was all too brief. Her critics say its an opportunity squandered, because instead of securing the union, Arlene Foster leaves with Northern Ireland more separate from the UK than ever before.