LONDON – Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party is looking for a new leader following First Minister Arlene Foster's announcement that she will be standing down after nearly 5 1/2 years in the post.
Following weeks of pressure related to her handling of Brexit and her perceived softening on social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights, Foster said she would step down as leader of the party on May 28 and as first minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June.
Her successor, who will be the party's fourth leader, is set to be chosen in a ballot of the party's lawmakers in the U.K. Parliament in London as well as those in Northern Ireland's power-sharing assembly in Belfast.
It's unclear whether there will be more than one candidate. If there is, it would be the first time in the Democratic Unionist Party's 50-year history that an election has taken place. It's also not clear whether the winner will necessarily take up the position of first minister as the leader could be based in London.
Still, who replaces Foster matters — for Northern Ireland and for the wider United Kingdom and its relationships with Ireland and the European Union.
That's because the DUP has played an outsized role in British politics over the past couple of decades after becoming the leading proponent of the union between Northern Ireland and Britain.
The party has provided three of the four first ministers to have run the devolved administration in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 formalized power-sharing arrangements between those who want to remain in the U.K. and those who wish to see Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland.
For decades, that fissure fueled sectarian violence. The so-called Troubles, which formally ended with the Good Friday Agreement, resulted in around 3,500 deaths.