Arlene Foster’s sudden announcement of her intention to resign as leader of the DUP and First Minister is an important turning point in politics in Northern Ireland. Only the day before the announcement, she was dismissing as rumour the suggestion that 75% of DUP MLAs and MPs had signed a letter calling for her and other senior figures to go.

Such an event is unprecedented in the DUP’s fifty-year history. The party has had only three leaders: Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Foster. It has no history of leadership challenges, and previous changes have been more like the coronation of an heir than a real contest. Now, serious division in the party is emerging.

Foster has survived calls for her resignation before, including in the context of her role in the “cash for ash” scandal which led to the collapse of the Executive in 2017. However, this time was different. The recent riots reflect significant discontent among a large section of working-class Protestants over the implementation of a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, which many see as another step towards being pushed out of the UK and into a united Ireland. There is also anger over the perception that there is one rule for Sinn Féin and another for the rest of us, following the announcement that no one will face prosecution for participation in the mass funeral for Bobby Storey. 

The DUP has been damaged by these events because of the leadership’s seeming acceptance – albeit reluctant – of the sea border agreed by the Johnson government and EU, and its failure to ‘stand up’ to Sinn Féin over the Storey funeral. Foster’s failure to call for Michelle O’Neill to resign – focusing instead on Chief Constable Simon Byrne – was met with derision. An opinion poll showed a significant shift of support from the DUP to the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). 

In this context, Foster’s replacement will likely mark a shift of the party to a more strident and overtly sectarian approach, in order to win back ground from the TUV and other ‘dissident’ unionist forces. For example, the current favourite to succeed Foster is Edwin Poots, who has been posturing to the party’s right in pushing for a quicker easing of lockdown in the interests of business. In response to the Bobby Storey funeral, he struck a particularly sectarian note, arguing discipline around the pandemic had been maintained in the Protestant community but the virus was being allowed to spread because of a lack of discipline among Catholics.

A secondary but still important issue is how Foster has enraged the evangelical fundamentalist wing in her party by abstaining on – rather than voting against – a motion to ban ‘conversion therapy’, a practice that has been used to, in reality, torture many LGBT+ people. Of course, Foster is in no sense a progressive figure. Despite the talk of ‘breaking the glass’ ceiling, the Executive under the leadership of Foster and O’Neill has delivered no economic or social benefits for working-class women, while the DUP have remained the chief opponents of reproductive and LGBT+ rights.

At the same time, the election of Foster – a woman, former UUP member and Anglican – as DUP leader did represent a certain departure from the party’s Paisleyite and Free Presbyterian roots, and she has sought to at least soften the party’s tone on many issues, recognising that reactionary rhetoric jars with most Protestants, including DUP voters. Many people rightly fear that her replacement will mark a shift to a more reactionary position on these questions. For example, Poots as Health Minister spent tens of thousands of pounds in public money to keep the “gay blood ban”, and is nakedly sexist. When Foster became DUP leader, he commented that her “most important job” remained “that of a wife, mother and daughter”.

This tension between the more pragmatic and fundamentalist wings can open up serious divisions within the DUP. Foster is alleged to be planning to leave the party entirely when her transition period ends, and her predecessor, Peter Robinson, has written about the dangers of a purge in the upper echelons of the party. If a credible ‘compromise’ candidate doesn’t emerge, new splits from the party are possible.

However, Foster’s resignation also reflects a more profound process. It comes days ahead of the centenary of the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament, a landmark in the partition of Ireland and the establishment of the Northern Ireland state. One hundred years on, Northern Ireland is entering a new period – one in which the 25-year “peace process”, based on bringing together sectarian forces at the top of society while institutionalising and reinforcing division at the bottom, will face its most profound crisis yet, with a looming question mark over the future of the power-sharing institutions. The Socialist Party will produce more in-depth analysis on this process in the days to come. 

This instability points in a dangerous direction, as recognised by a majority in society. 76% of people say it is possible there can be a return to violence. We need to build a movement that clearly demands no going back to the conflict of the past, one which can oppose any action that would heighten sectarian tension. Ultimately, that requires the building of a cross-community, working-class and socialist alternative to the dead-end of Orange and Green politics, which offers nothing but enduring division, poverty and inequality.