Statement delivered on Wednesday afternoon (28 April) by DUP Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland Rt. Hon. Arlene Foster MLA.
A short time ago I called the Party Chairman to inform him that I intend to step down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party on the twenty-eighth of May and as First Minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June.
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. When elected I will work with the new leader on transition arrangements.
As First Minister it is important that I complete work on a number of important issues for Northern Ireland alongside other Executive colleagues. Northern Ireland and its people have been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and there remains more work to be done to steer us thorough the pandemic and to lessen its impact on the lives of everyone.
It has been the privilege of my life to serve the people of Northern Ireland as their First Minister and to represent my home constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone. I first entered the Assembly in 2003 and undoubtedly the journey of the last eighteen years has been memorable. There are many people who have helped and supported me throughout that period and I will always been grateful for the kindness and support shown to me by them.
Whilst there have been many difficult and testing times for the Executive it remains my firm view that Northern Ireland has been better served having local Ministers at this time. It is unthinkable that we could have faced into the Coronavirus pandemic without our own devolved Ministers in place and no Ministerial direction for Departments.
As I prepare to depart the political stage it is my view that if Northern Ireland is to prosper then it will only do so built on the foundations of successful and durable devolution. That will require continued hard work and real determination and courage on all sides.
Whilst the focus is on me today I recognise that will pass. For me my decision to enter politics was never about party or person, it was about speaking up for the voiceless and building a Northern Ireland which could prosper and be at peace within the United Kingdom.
I am the first to recognise there have been ups and downs over the last five and a half years.
The 2016 Assembly election result and our Party’s best ever Westminster result in 2017 stand out amongst the high points when the electorate sent a clear message that they wanted to keep Northern Ireland moving forward.
The Confidence and Supply Agreement was able to bring one billion pounds of extra spending for everyone in Northern Ireland. Our priorities were not narrow but based on more investment in mental health and hospitals, bringing broadband to rural communities, improving our roads and ensuring funding to encourage more shared housing and education.
For our innocent victims, I am proud we battled together and whilst too late for some, we finally secured a truly deserved pension for you.
For our armed forces, the Veterans’ Commissioner is in place. You have an advocate to stand up for you and ensure your voice is heard at the heart of government.
Of course as with highs there were lows along the way.
The three years without devolution caused untold harm to our public services and the RHI Inquiry was a difficult period. The Protocol being foisted upon Northern Ireland against the will of unionists has served to destabilise Northern Ireland in more recent times.
Whilst there is still a job of work to do, 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 twelve months, I have been holding online meetings every week with young people mainly from working class communities and encouraging them especially the young women to get involved.
I echo that encouragement today. Politics and debate is the only path to effect change in society. You will and can be the MPs, MLAs and Councillors of tomorrow.
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.
I understand the misogynistic criticisms that female public figures have to take and sadly it’s the same for all women in public life.
I want to encourage you to keep going and don’t let the online lynch mobs get you down.
To the hundreds of Party supporters who have been in touch over the last few days, I say a sincere thank you for the opportunities to serve you and the support you have given me. For almost five and a half years I have been incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to lead the Democratic Unionist Party.
I have sought to lead the Party and Northern Ireland away from division and towards a better path.
There are people in Northern Ireland with a British identity, others are Irish, others are Northern Irish, others are a mixture of all three and some are new and emerging. We must all learn to be generous to each other, live together and share this wonderful country.
The future of unionism and Northern Ireland will not be found in division, it will only be found in sharing this place we all are privileged to call home.