Northern Ireland may soon have its first female leader as Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds announced Monday he will not stand for leadership of the party.
Dodds had been a marked favorite to take over from current leader Peter Robinson since he announced he would step aside as DUP chief and as Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister in November.
Current Northern Ireland Finance Minister Arlene Foster is now the favorite to take on the role and likely becoming the first female First Minister and DUP leader. The MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone has previously acted in the role for short periods of time between January 11 and February 3, 2010 and September 10 and October 20, 2015.
It was expected that Dodds would be conferred as the new leader at a DUP party executive meeting next week before Robinson officially steps aside after Christmas.
Given that Nigel Dodds only announced his decision late this afternoon didn't take 75 of reps long to back Arlene Foster.— Gareth Gordon (@BBCGarethG) December 7, 2015
In a surprising announcement on Monday, however, Dodds stated that as he is based in Westminster, he did not deem it a wise decision to take on leadership.
“I am previously on record as stating clearly my view about the disadvantage of attempting to lead a modern Northern Ireland party from Westminster when we now have devolved government,” said Dodds.
“I remain of the view that being at Westminster means I would not be able to devote the necessary day-to-day focus and time to the role of leader and, at the same time, properly and fully carry out my duties and responsibilities in the House of Commons.”
Nigel Dodds, a barrister, is currently a Member of Parliament (MP) for Belfast North and is not a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He served twice as Lord Mayor of Belfast, the first time in 1988, aged just 29.
Although he says he is honored by suggestions that he should progress from deputy leader to leader, he stated that for the benefit of Northern Ireland he would not be standing for the leadership.
“The work and the opportunities for Northern Ireland at Westminster have already grown significantly and especially recently as a result of the DUP’s position in a House of Commons where the government has such a small majority,” he said.
“That work and those opportunities are only set to increase over the course of the five years of this parliamentary term.
“Whilst in other circumstances it would be natural and a great honor to lead the party, it would be wrong in my current circumstances to put my own personal standing above what I believe to be the long-term best interests of the party and the people we serve,” he added.
In his statement, Dodds announced his support for Arlene Foster, the woman now expected to become DUP leader.
Robinson confirmed he received a valid nomination from Foster on Monday evening.
(1) Tonight I received a valid nomination from the Finance Minister, Mrs Arlene Foster, for the DUP Leader's post.— Peter Robinson (@DUPleader) December 7, 2015
(2) Arlene's nomination was submitted with the support of over 75% of those entitled to vote in the electoral college.— Peter Robinson (@DUPleader) December 7, 2015
Formerly a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, Foster, 45, has been an MEP since 2003.
Growing up in a Protestant community in Fermanagh, Foster experienced the IRA’s campaign along the border with the Republic firsthand. Her father was a part-time Royal Ulster Constabulary officer, whom the IRA attempted to murder, and she herself survived an IRA bombing when her school bus driver was targeted.
She opposed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and was known as one of the “baby barristers” within the UUP who actively opposed leader David Trimble after he supported the Belfast Agreement.
In 2004, Foster defected from the UUP to the DUP and some in the party still regard her as a “blow-in.”
She has fulfilled the responsibilities of First Minister twice since joining the DUP – during the Assembly crisis earlier this year and in 2010 when Robinson temporarily stepped aside following a BBC "Spotlight" program that revealed his wife’s affair and that the Robinsons allegedly received financial support from property speculators.
Foster was the only DUP Minister not to temporarily resign earlier this year when Robinson and his MEPs walked out of the Assembly in reaction to claims that paramilitaries had been behind the murder of two former IRA men last summer.
She has acted as Minister of the Environment and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment before becoming Minister for Finance and Personnel in May 2015.
“I believe that in the Assembly Arlene Foster is the leader that can take our party and Northern Ireland forward to an even better future,” said Dodds.
“I will continue to fulfill my duties to the party as deputy leader, and working together as part of a strong team of DUP representatives at every level we will continue to offer the best opportunity to advance the cause of unionism at Stormont and Westminster.”
Arlene Foster seems like a safe bet to be the next leader of the DUP, yet will any dark horse emerge? #dupleadercontest— Rebecca Black (@RBlackBT) December 7, 2015
On Robinson’s resignation, some Belfast residents also voiced their support of Foster.
“I like her because she is the only politician from the DUP that handles Gerry Kelly from Sinn Féin,” Alfie Kelly told the Irish Times.
“She’s the only one that has the measure of him when they debate.
It had previously been speculated that the role of DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister would be separated in the same way that Gerry Adams acts as leader of the Sinn Féin political party but Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness holds the title of Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister.
It is not known if this will now be the case following Dodds’ announcement.
Nominations for DUP leader will close 5pm (Irish time) on Wednesday before the meeting on Thursday.
(3) Nominations close at 5pm on Wednesday.
— Peter Robinson (@DUPleader) December 7, 2015
On December 4, Foster's County Fermanagh constituency office was subject to threat and put under security alert that caused the evacuation of the street and the nearby buildings.