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Arlene Foster facing battle to remain head of DUP as members of her party demand leadership contest

Arlene Foster is facing a battle to remain leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Sky News understands 75% of the Democratic Unionist Party’s Northern Ireland Assembly members have signed a letter demanding a leadership contest.

The challenge, first reported by the Belfast News Letter, could signal the end of Mrs Foster’s tenure as Northern Ireland’s first minister.

Yesterday, eight of the party’s 18 constituency associations submitted letters of concern over the leadership’s handling of the Northern Ireland Protocol and other issues.

Mrs Foster played down the threat when speaking to reporters earlier today.

She said: "Stories on leadership come up from time to time, and it’s one of those times.

"So we’ll just deal with it and move on because I’ve bigger things to do, including getting us through this COVID pandemic, including listening to the concerns of working-class communities.

"These stories come up from time to time. This is no different.

"I haven’t received any letters from constituency associations so I’m not going to get into a running commentary on these issues, they come up from time to time. I think it’s important to note that there is the big job of work to do. We have a year left of this mandate.

"It’s important that we lift our eyes and continue the work of rolling out of the restrictions, deal with the Northern Ireland Protocol."

The DUP said in a statement: "The Democratic Unionist Party conducts its business in accordance with its constitution and rules.

"The officers of the party oversee the conduct and organisation of its internal democratic electoral processes. Whilst understanding that there will be from time-to-time public interest in party processes, these issues, in the first instance, are matters for members of the party and we are not able to make any further comment at this time."

It comes after some serious speculation on Monday that many in her party have been expressing concerns about her handling of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit deal, which effectively put some border controls down the Irish Sea.

Previously, Sky News understood there could not be a leadership challenge outside of the party’s annual conference, which takes place in the autumn.

It remains to be seen if the DUP will devise some kind of mechanism for reviewing whether a challenge can go ahead or if Mrs Foster will consider her position no longer tenable and decide to step down of her own accord.

She has been at the helm of the party during a turbulent period.

Mrs Foster had only been first minister for one year when difficulties between the DUP and Sinn Fein over power sharing led to the collapse of devolved government, resulting in no devolved government at Stormont for three years.

It’s just over a year since it was restored again. But despite the fact that the the power sharing government has been dealing with the fairly obvious challenges of a global pandemic, there have been clear cracks emerging in that partnership between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Many within the DUP feel the first minister should have taken a much firmer stance against the what they see as Boris Johnson’s betrayal – when he agreed to put a border in the Irish Sea – despite having committed many times not to do so.

But the concerns within her own party run deeper than that.

Even though Mrs Foster is leader of a fundamentally conservative party that has its roots in the Free Presbyterian Church, she has always been a more pragmatic leader than some of her predecessors.

And the most recent example of that was last week when the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to ban the controversial practice of conversion therapy – a pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation.

Mrs Foster took a softer position than many in her party when she abstained.

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