Video: UTV reporter Sarah Clarke reflects on Arlene Foster's political career
Arlene Foster has announced her intention to step down as both DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, after coming under intense pressure from party colleagues.
It is understood an internal revolt led to a significant number of DUP politicians signing a letter of no confidence in Mrs Foster that was circulated among party MLAs, MPs and peers.
She has now confirmed that her time as leader is coming to an end after five-and-a-half years, having taken over the role from Peter Robinson.
Mrs Foster has informed DUP chairman Lord Maurice Morrow of her decision.
She will step aside as DUP leader on 28 May, after working through the transition with the new leader when they have been elected, and as First Minister at the end of June.
In her statement, Mrs Foster said there was much work to still be done – both for her in the short-term before stepping aside, and for those who come after.
Noting in particular the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, she said: “As First Minister, it is important that I complete work on a number of important issues for Northern Ireland alongside other Executive colleagues.
“Northern Ireland and its people have been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and there remains more work to be done to steer us thorough the pandemic and to lessen its impact on the lives of everyone.”
She added: “Whilst there have been many difficult and testing times for the Executive, it remains my firm view that Northern Ireland has been better served having local ministers at this time.
“It is unthinkable that we could have faced into the coronavirus pandemic without our own devolved ministers in place and no ministerial direction for departments.”
In announcing her resignation, Mrs Foster reflected on her career in politics, particularly as a woman, and described it as the “privilege of my life” to serve the people of Northern Ireland as First Minister and to represent her home constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone.
Having first entered the Stormont Assembly in 2003, she noted that the journey over the 18 years since had been “memorable” and addressed highs and lows from the Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Conservative government that secured £1bn in spending for Northern Ireland, to the RHI scandal.
She also outlined the need to encourage young people, especially women, to engage with politics.
Video: UTV reporter Sara O'Kane gauges reaction from Arlene Foster's Fermanagh constituency
“Over the last 12 months, I have been holding online meetings every week with young people mainly from working class communities and encouraging them, especially the young women, to get involved,” Mrs Foster said.
“I echo that encouragement today. Politics and debate is the only path to effect change in society. You will and can be the MPs, MLAs and councillors of tomorrow.
“My election as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party broke a glass ceiling and I am glad inspired other women to enter politics and spurred them on to take up elected office.”
However, in a nod to the difficulties she herself has faced, Mrs Foster added: “I understand the misogynistic criticisms that female public figures have to take and sadly it’s the same for all women in public life.
“I want to encourage you to keep going and don’t let the online lynch mobs get you down.”
But after thanking supporters and turning to the future, Mrs Foster shared her thoughts on how Northern Ireland needs to move forward.
“There are people in Northern Ireland with a British identity, others are Irish, others are Northern Irish, others are a mixture of all three and some are new and emerging,” she said.
“We must all learn to be generous to each other, live together, and share this wonderful country.”
Mrs Foster’s partner-in-government, Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said they had spoken and she had wished her DUP counterpart and her family well.
“I have worked alongside Arlene Foster this past year in what has been a difficult and challenging time for everyone with the unexpected onset of the Covid pandemic,” she said.
“Throughout the pandemic, I acknowledge the efforts Arlene Foster has made as First Minister, and the service that she has given in working with the rest of the Executive as we have battled the biggest health crisis in a generation.
“It is now a matter for the DUP to choose a replacement.”
Speaking about the future, Ms O’Neill said a “genuine commitment” was required from all political leaders to power-sharing and equality issues, including for women, for the LGBT community, and for the Irish language.
“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,” she added.
“The public and electorate want the parties to enter into a new era and make politics work in their interests. This is certainly my top priority now and in the time ahead.”
On Wednesday evening Prime Minister Boris Johnson took to Twitter, thanking Arlene Foster for her dedication to the people of Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis paid tribute to Mrs Foster, describing her as a "truly dedicated public servant".
There has been speculation around who will succeed Arlene Foster, and what that might mean for the political direction of the DUP she had tried to steer to a more centrist party of unionism to the discomfort who those within who may take a harder line on social issues.
SDLP leader and Foyle MP Colum Eastwood said the circumstances that had led to Arlene Foster’s resignation were “deeply concerning”.
“That a political leader would be removed from office by their party for failing to support conversion therapy is distressing and will cause some alarm for members of our LGBT+ community,” he said.
“They should know that we will not roll back on the progress we’ve made or deny them their rights.”
Mr Eastwood added: “Whoever takes over as DUP leader and First Minister will also inherit the same febrile political situation that we have all been dealing with for months.
“Neither the British Government nor the European Union will alter their position on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“Regardless of personnel changes – the fundamental problems have not changed and therefore neither have the solutions.”
Mr Eastwood extended his personal good wishes to Mrs Foster and her family, saying: “We disagree on almost everything, but she has clearly been a committed servant to her party for a long time.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken said: “Politics is a difficult arena which can take an enormous toll, on both you personally and your family.
“I wish Arlene all the best for the future.”
TUV leader Jim Allister also wished Mrs Foster and her family the best for the future.
“I have known Arlene for many years, dating back to when we both practised law. In all my dealings with her I found her straightforward and honourable, whatever our political differences,” he said.
“Going forward, I trust the new DUP leader will be wholly committed to restoring the Union and undoing the severe damage done by the iniquitous Protocol.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has also wished Arlene Foster “the very best for the future”, having reflected on what he said had been a positive working relationship with the outgoing First Minister.
“Political leadership is often not easy and takes courage,” he said.
“The re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2020 with Arlene Foster as First Minister and Michelle O’Neill as deputy First Minister was a key development in supporting peace and stability for all the people of these islands.
“The Northern Ireland Executive under their leadership has had to grapple with the Covid pandemic almost since the beginning, and I pay tribute to Arlene’s role in guiding Northern Ireland through this challenging period.”
Mr Martin added: “As the first female leader of the DUP and the first female First Minister of Northern Ireland, working alongside the deputy First Minister, she sent a strong message to women about what can be achieved in and through politics.”
Video: UTV's Marc Mallett and Vicki Hawthorne discuss the contenders for the DUP top job