The Guardian view on Arlene Foster’s overthrow: a wake-up call for Britain

Arlene Foster’s sudden resignation as leader of the Democratic Unionist party and first minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration is no storm in a teacup. It does not merely trigger an internal DUP crisis, although it certainly does that too. It creates a fresh challenge for Northern Ireland unionism more widely, for the rest of its politics more generally, for the management of Brexit in both parts of Ireland, for the peace process, for the future of the union and, not least, for Boris Johnson’s government.

Ms Foster’s leadership was a white-knuckle ride. She enjoyed none of the ascendancy within unionism that her predecessors could rely on. She led the DUP campaign to leave the European Union, only for Northern Ireland to vote remain. Finding the DUP holding the balance of power after the 2017 UK election, she recklessly overplayed her hand by opposing Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal. Her stubborn handling of Northern Ireland’s costly renewable heat initiative scandal, over which she had presided as enterprise minister, meant the devolved institutions were suspended for three years. When they resumed in 2020, she tried to implement a Brexit Northern Ireland protocol that her party loathes. In the end, though, it was none of this that caused her overthrow. Instead, it was her abstention in a vote for a ban on gay conversion therapies and her decision to resume talks with Dublin over the protocol that brought her down.

But it is the consequences that matter most now. In the short term, much hangs on events in the weeks before Ms Foster formally hands over at the end of June. As those with long enough memories to recall the calendar of Northern Ireland politics will sense, this threatens to be a difficult summer. After the disorder caused by the protocol in March, the summer marching season beckons. Northern Ireland is also about to mark the divisive centenary of its own creation in 1921 next week. But the political challenges go much deeper.

The immediate question for the DUP is the choice of successor. It seems likely that Ms Foster will be followed by a more hardline, less pragmatic leader, in an effort to prevent a loss of support to groups such as the Traditional Unionist Voice. That could make more conciliatory politics more difficult, especially in relation to the Brexit protocol. This in turn might accelerate unionism’s weakening hold over Northern Ireland politics more widely and give a further boost to the parties of the centre that did well in the 2019 general election. The prospect of Sinn Féin, which failed by a single seat last time, becoming the largest party in the assembly in 2022, and capturing the first minister role from the DUP, is now very real.

Whether power-sharing would seamlessly survive shocks of this kind is questionable. With the union already under separate challenge in Scotland, Sinn Féin’s demands for an early poll on Irish reunification, which the UK is pledged by treaty to hold if the Northern Ireland secretary thinks a majority might vote for it, would create further tensions. An opinion poll this month to mark the centenary of partition showed that a majority expect Northern Ireland to leave the UK in the next 25 years. The moment calls for wise statecraft on all sides.

Ms Foster’s ousting should be a wake-up call for British politicians. Ever since the Good Friday agreement, British governments have relaxed their focus on Northern Ireland. Mr Johnson’s lazy style epitomises that disengagement. This will have to change. He may soon find himself giving far more attention to Ireland than he – and many others with the best interests of these islands at heart – would wish.

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