Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster’s shock announcement last week she is stepping down from both posts could leave the party facing difficult decisions in the coming days.
Viewed as a so-called moderniser within the DUP, her successor - or successors if the party decides to split both posts - could well decide the fate of the power-sharing Stormont Executive and ultimately devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Already Stormont Minister and Lagan Valley MLA Edwin Poots - viewed as the champion of the party’s founding fundamentalist wing - has announced his pitch for the leadership.
While he is seen as being from the Free Presbyterian Right-wing of the DUP, he is also viewed as a pragmatist when it comes to working with Sinn Fein in the Executive.
In Poots, the DUP would be combining the posts - leadership and First Minister - ensuring that a fifth columnist group does not emerge among MPs and peers at Westminster.
Likewise, if the looming debates over the Protocol and the Irish Language Act resulted in another collapse of Stormont, Poots would still have his leadership role as party boss to push his Unionist agenda.
Although Mrs Foster was first elected to the Assembly in 2003 for the border constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, that was as a member of the more liberal Ulster Unionist Party. She later defected to the DUP, becoming its leader in 2015.
Although elections to the Assembly have been put on hold until May 2022 because of the pandemic, it is the Northern Ireland Protocol - effectively creating a border in the Irish Sea - rather than Covid 19, which is being seen as the cause for the crisis within the DUP.
All eyes will now focus on who will be elected to the post of party leader and First Minister, or whether the DUP will decide to divide both posts and have a First Minister at Stormont from its Assembly team, while the party boss would come from either the Commons MPs or peers. With Poots’ hat in the ring for leadership, could a deputy leader to replace Lord Dodds - the former North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds - come from the Westminster team?
Mrs Foster was only the third person to lead the DUP since it was launched in 1971. Whoever takes over may be facing a poisoned chalice in terms of leading Unionism through the Protocol crisis.
Rather than an economic crisis, the Protocol is being seen by many in the pro-Union community, and especially among working class Protestant loyalists, as seriously undermining Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK in this the NI state’s centenary year.
During the Easter holidays, parts of Northern Ireland witnessed some of the most serious rioting as loyalists took to the streets to vent their anger against the Protocol, injuring almost 100 police officers.
Ironically, Mrs Foster found herself in almost a carbon copy politically as the same crisis which DUP founder - the late Rev Ian Paisley - found himself in when he was forced to stand down both as First Minister and as party leader.
Rev Paisley had in 2006 signed up to the St Andrews Agreement with Sinn Fein, which the following year ushered in one of the most stable periods of devolved government in Northern Ireland since the signing of the original Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
With the late Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein as his deputy, the partnership with Paisley in the Executive became known as ‘The Chuckle Brothers’, such was the political and personal rapport between the fundamentalist Christian firebrand preacher and the one time senior commander in the Provisional IRA.
However, the DUP has always, since its inception, had a Hard Right faction influenced by fundamentalist Christianity as Rev Paisley had also founded the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in 1951.
For years, the DUP played second fiddle politically to the rival Ulster Unionist Party, which had run Northern Ireland since the formation of the state in 1921. But in 2003 and 2005, the DUP ‘overtook’ the UUP in Assembly and Westminster elections respectively as the main political voice for Unionism.
Mrs Foster - given her UUP and Anglican background - was viewed as a liberalising influence within the DUP, especially as three past elections in Northern Ireland saw massive swings to the centre ground Alliance Party.
However, existing fundamentalists within the DUP fear that Mrs Foster’s middle of the road stance was taking the party further away politically from Rev Paisley’s founding ethos.
The success of Paisleyism in Unionism was that it gave a political voice to two previous muted sections of the pro-Union community - the loyalist working class and evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.
There was also a fear among those two factions that Mrs Foster had been ‘wrong footed’ over the Protocol by Westminster and that the DUP will suffer as a consequence in any future elections, sparking more support for the Alliance Party, a revival in fortunes for the UUP, an increase in support for the more hardline party the Traditional Unionist Voice, or even the formation of yet another Unionist political movement.
A Poots leadership would clearly signal a move to the Right-wing to combat the TUV, while there have also been rumours of plans to create a new middle of the road pro-Union party to combat the drift of Unionist voters to Alliance.
Such rumours have rekindled the ghost of the old NI21 party formed by two liberal UUP MLAs - Basil McCrea of Lagan Valley and John McCallister of South Down. However, NI21 imploded politically before it had a realistic chance of establishing itself on the political map.
The coup against Mrs Foster’s leadership would appear to have been orchestrated by DUP activists loyal to the vision of the late Rev Paisley and modern day pragmatists who saw Mrs Foster personally as a potential political liability in any future elections.
If she was to be replaced as leader and First Minister, there is no guarantee her successor would enjoy a cordial relationship with Sinn Fein within the power-sharing Executive.
If the DUP was to elect a more hardline leader, for example, from the party’s fundamentalist wing, it could trigger a collapse of the Executive in protest at the Protocol.
Likewise, the DUP could elect a Westminster MP or peer as the next party boss, thereby transferring the power base of the party from Stormont to Westminster. Ironically, another Lagan Valley DUP elected representative, MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leads the field among the Commons team.
Another MP mooted for leadership is Gavin Robinson of East Belfast, but given that his main rival in the constituency is Alliance - not the UUP - it has been suggested Robinson is more politically liberal than Foster.
His election would signal the intention of the DUP to become a clearly liberal Unionist party with Alliance its main target as well as the centre ground of Northern Ireland politics.
Clearly, there is a significant section within the DUP’s panel of elected representatives who saw Mrs Foster as being politically unable either to combat the Protocol, or unite the party.
With Mrs Foster being forced to resign, the DUP will be forced to consider which is more important - saving Stormont and devolution, or saving unity within the party.
The ‘nuclear’ option is to collapse Stormont and avoid a potentially humiliating outcome in a May 2022 Assembly poll.
However, given Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnston’s Commons majority, the DUP does not enjoy the same clout in terms of a Westminster agreement as it did with Johnston’s predecessor, Theresa May, who relied heavily on DUP MPs to keep her Government in power.
The ultimate gamble for the DUP is that if it collapses Stormont, it may not get Direct Rule from Westminster as the alternative, but instead a form of joint authority between Dublin and London - a route that could place Northern Ireland on the road to Irish Unity.
It would be one of the great ironies of Irish politics if the DUP set in motion a chain of events which removed Northern Ireland from the Union itself.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.