Protestant leader may step aside for new Belfast unity deal

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Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster stands on the steps of Parliament Buildings after becoming Northern Ireland’s first minister, Belfast January 5, 2016. Photo by Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

DUBLIN — The senior Protestant politician in Northern Ireland left the door open Sunday for stepping aside as part of a potential deal to revive the British territory’s unity government with Catholics.

Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster said she asserted no personal claim to be “first minister,” the top post that she held before January’s collapse of power-sharing. Foster has been under pressure to quit since her pro-British party nearly lost its No. 1 position in politics to the Irish nationalists of Sinn Fein.

In a Belfast interview with Sky News, Foster insisted she would not quit as party leader but could allow another leading Democratic Unionist to be nominated in her place as first minister if her colleagues want to back an alternative.

“It is up to our party to decide who our nominee will be,” she said.

Sinn Fein has demanded that concession for months, citing Foster’s disparaging comments on Irish nationalist issues and her past oversight of a “green energy” program that could cost taxpayers tens of millions in recklessly uncapped subsidies.

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Sinn Fein’s surprise January withdrawal from power-sharing ended its nearly decade-old partnership with the Democratic Unionists, forced Foster out as first minister and precipitating March 2 elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Power-sharing was the central goal of a 1998 peace accord that sought to end the decades of conflict over Northern Ireland that has claimed 3,700 lives since 1969.

Overtly campaigning for Foster’s ouster, Sinn Fein surged to within a whisker of overtaking the Democratic Unionists — a surprise that left many Protestants calling for Foster’s removal, too. The new 90-member Assembly has 28 Democratic Unionists and 27 Sinn Fein lawmakers.

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Foster, an attorney by trade who has frequently clashed with Irish nationalists since taking the power-sharing helm in January 2016, said the election’s outcome “has caused a lot of shock, certainly, within unionism … a sense of how could this happen?”

She said she has never considered resigning as party leader, but drew a significant distinction with her claim to the role of first minister, stressing that this issue was part of ongoing negotiations with Sinn Fein.

“It’s never been about me. The election was about what was good for Northern Ireland,” she said. “Other parties tried to make it a referendum on me.”

The assembly has launched an investigation into Foster’s oversight of an incentive-payments scheme for businesses to adopt wood pellet-fired heaters.

Unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland’s rollout of the program involved excessive subsidies and no claim limits for 20 years to applicants accepted from 2012 to 2015, when Foster was enterprise minister.

Chicken farmers with close family links to Democratic Unionist officials are among claimants seeking payouts that, if not curtailed or reversed, could cost taxpayers 490 million pounds ($600 million), or about $330 per resident.

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