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Arlene Foster to step down as DUP leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister, she tells Sky News

Arlene Foster has told Sky News she will step down as DUP leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister, following calls within the party for a leadership contest.

In a statement, Mrs Foster said: "It is important to give space over the next few weeks for the party officers to make arrangements for the election of a new leader."

She described serving the people of Northern Ireland as "the privilege of my life".

The outgoing first minister added: "The future of unionism and Northern Ireland will not be found in division. It will only be found in sharing this place we are privileged to call home."

It comes after 75% of the Democratic Unionist Party‘s (DUP) Northern Ireland Assembly members signed a letter demanding a leadership contest.

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

On Wednesday afternoon, she released a statement saying that she would step down as leader of the DUP on 20 May and as first minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June.

Mrs Foster, in the six minute statement, reflected on an 18-year career in the Stormont Assembly, saying how proud she was of her achievements.

She said: "I am the first to recognise that there have been ups and downs over this last five and a half years (as party leader). The 2016 assembly election results and our party’s best ever Westminster result in 2017, stand out amongst the high points…

"Of course, along with the highs, there have been lows along the way. The three years without devolution caused untold harm to our public services.

"I am proud that there is a young generation of Democratic Unionists getting involved in politics and trying to shape Northern Ireland for the better.

"Over the last 12 months, I’ve been holding online meetings with young people, mainly from working class communities and encouraging them, especially the young women, to get involved. And I echo that encouragement today. Politics and debate is the only path to affect change in society."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tweeted his thanks to Mrs Foster for her dedication, saying: "I hope that she stays in public service for years to come."

Former DUP special adviser Tim Cairns told Sky News the speed at which her downfall had come was a "surprise".

He said: "I think most of us thought it was just another attack from the hardliners in the party. This has happened at breakneck speed. It’s caught a lot of people unawares. It’s caught Arlene Foster unawares… She did not expect that there had been people plotting for about the last week.

"Even yesterday lunchtime she didn’t realise there was quite this much opposition to her leadership."

He said it had come about because of the "mixed messages" about Brexit, saying there was a need to vote down the Brexit protocol – but also other messages that did not "sit well" with some in the party.

Mr Cairns said the speculation was that the role in future would be split between Westminster and the Assembly, with someone like Jeffrey Donaldson or Gavin Robinson as likely candidates at the UK parliament. The only name in the frame to head up the party in Stormont, he said, was the current agriculture minister Edwin Poots.

Deputy first minister and vice president of Sinn Fein, Michelle O’Neill, has wished Arlene Foster well.

She said: "I spoke to Arlene today and she informed me of her decision to step down. I wished her and and her family well.

"I have worked alongside Arlene Foster this past year in what has been a difficult and challenging time for everyone with the unexpected onset of the COVID pandemic. I acknowledge the efforts Arlene Foster has made as first minister, and the service that she has given in working with the rest of the Executive."

Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney also paid tribute to her contribution to Northern Irish politics.

He tweeted: "While we bring different perspectives to some issues, she has worked sincerely, tirelessly & with determination for her party & for NI as First Minister."

Mrs Foster in her speech also spoke proudly about breaking the ‘glass ceiling’, by becoming the first female leaders of the DUP, and urged other women to press on with potential political careers.

She said: "I am glad that I have inspired other women to enter politics and spurred them on to getting involved in elected office. And I understand the misogynistic criticisms female public figures have had to take, and sadly it’s the same for all women in public life.

"So I want to encourage you to keep going and don’t let the online lynchmob get you down."

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