Dispute About Brexit Leads Northern Ireland's Arlene Foster to Announce Resignation

Arlene Foster, the leader of Northern Ireland, announced her resignation on Wednesday after facing growing pressure from members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to leave her role over disputes related to Brexit.

Foster said she would step down as leader of the Unionist Party on May 28, and as Northern Ireland's first minister at the end of June, the Associated Press reported.

The announcement came after several lawmakers in her party signed a letter of no-confidence in her over her support for Brexit, which resulted in controversial post-exit trade rules in the region. Other conservative members of the DUP have recently criticized Foster for taking too liberal a stance on social issues, including gay rights.

On Wednesday, Foster said it had been "the privilege" of her life to serve Northern Ireland.

"I have sought to lead the party and Northern Ireland away from division and towards a better path," she said in a televised statement.

The move against Foster, who has led the party since 2015, is the latest sign of how Britain's economic split from the European Union at the end of 2020 has shaken the political balance in Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K. where some people identify as British and some as Irish.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Northern Ireland Leader Arlene Foster Resigns
Arlene Foster will step down as leader of the Unionist Party on May 28, and as Northern Ireland's first minister at the end of June. Above, Foster and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meet at Stormont on July 2, 2019, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Getty Images/Charles McQuillan

Post-Brexit trade rules have imposed customs and border checks on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. The arrangement was designed to avoid checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an EU member, because an open Irish border has helped underpin the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

The new arrangements have angered Northern Ireland's British unionists, who say the new checks amount to a border in the Irish Sea, weaken ties with the rest of the U.K. and could bolster calls for Irish reunification.

Tensions over the new rules were a contributing factor to a week of street violence in Northern Ireland cities earlier this month that saw youths pelt police with bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs.

Foster and other prominent DUP politicians are facing the wrath of party members for backing the divorce agreement that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck with the EU.

Foster, 50, grew up during the decades of Northern Ireland violence known as "the Troubles," and as a child saw her father, a part-time police officer, shot and wounded in an Irish Republican Army attack.

She led a power-sharing government alongside the IRA-linked party Sinn Fein, though the relationship was often rocky. The Belfast administration collapsed in January 2017 over a botched green energy project. It remained suspended for almost three years amid a rift between British unionist and Irish nationalist parties over cultural and political issues, including the status of the Irish language.

Northern Ireland's government resumed work at the start of 2020, but deep distrust remained on both sides.

Foster was the first woman to lead the DUP, a party rooted in the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church.

"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," Foster said.

She urged other women to follow suit despite "the misogynistic criticisms that female public figures have to take."

Foster's replacement, to be selected by the DUP, is likely to take a strong line against the post-Brexit trade arrangements. The party wants the U.K. government to rip up its divorce agreement with the EU. The bloc said that is impossible, and the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it is working to overcome teething problems in the new relationship.

Tim Cairns, a former DUP special adviser, said that "whoever the first minister ends up being, there's going to be more pressure on Boris Johnson."

Northern Ireland Leader Arlene Foster Resigns
Arlene Foster will step down as leader of the Unionist Party on May 28, and as Northern Ireland's first minister at the end of June. Above, Foster speaks during a visit to the Hammer Youth Centre in Belfast, Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Associated Press/Liam McBurnley/PA via AP