Political unionism in Northern Ireland has been thrown into further flux after the leader of the Ulster Unionist party announced his resignation.
Steve Aiken’s move comes 10 days after the Democratic Unionist party leader Arlene Foster was forced to quit after an internal heave against her.
The announcement from the South Antrim MLA, who will remain as leader until a successor is chosen, was also prompted by mounting discontent within the party over his stewardship.
With Aiken’s decision coming so soon after Foster’s, unionism is set for a significant realignment ahead of next year’s Assembly election.
The broader unionist and loyalist community in Northern Ireland has been significantly unsettled by the emergence of Brexit’s Irish Sea border and their political representatives acknowledge the election could be pivotal for the pro-union cause.
And if the political turmoil ends up destabilising the power-sharing administration in Belfast, the election could come sooner than scheduled.
Aiken, a former submarine captain, was elected UUP leader unopposed in 2019. Many are tipping the Upper Bann MLA Doug Beattie as a likely successor.
He was viewed as a serious leadership contender back in 2019 when the last vacancy arose but he ultimately chose not to stand, leaving Aiken with a clear path to the job.
In a letter to the party chair, Danny Kennedy, Aiken said he believed he had taken the party as far as he could. “To achieve our goals, we now need new leadership,” he wrote.
Aiken said he would remain in politics and continue as a South Antrim MLA.
Discussing his time as leader, Aiken said he took pride in the party’s decision to take on the challenging health minister portfolio when Stormont was restored in 2020.
He said his party colleague and former leader Robin Swann had been successful in his efforts to tackle the pandemic.
“However, despite our successes, it has become clear to me that if we are to achieve the breakthrough in the forthcoming Assembly elections, we will need to drive further ahead,” Aiken wrote.