The DUP has insisted questions over Arlene Foster’s future as leader are an internal matter as it responded to reports of a coordinated heave against her.
The party said its democratic electoral processes were a matter for the membership amid reports that a significant number of elected representatives have signed a letter of no confidence in Mrs Foster.
Earlier, Mrs Foster played down suggestions her position as party leader was under threat.
“Stories on leadership come up from time to time, and it’s one of those times,” said Stormont’s First Minister.
Responding to the mounting speculation around her leadership, the DUP statement said: “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.”
There has been growing discontent among DUP members about Mrs Foster’s leadership in recent months.
The primary source of concern is her handling of the Brexit process. The DUP is facing anger from the wider loyalist and unionist community for the introduction of an Irish Sea border.
Critics have accused Mrs Foster of failing to use the party’s influence at Westminster – particularly during its confidence and supply deal with the Conservatives – to secure a Brexit deal that saw Northern Ireland leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.
Poor polling numbers have exacerbated the discontent within the party faithful.
Mrs Foster’s decision to abstain in vote on gay conversion therapy last week appears to have further agitated sections of the party’s grassroots.
On Tuesday morning, the Belfast News Letter reported that several DUP constituency associations have written letters expressing concern at Mrs Foster’s abstention on a motion that called for a ban on gay conversion therapy but did not incorporate a specific mention of protections for religious practices.
We’ll just deal with it and move on because I’ve bigger things to doArlene Foster
Mrs Foster was asked whether her leadership was in question on a visit to a youth centre in Belfast on Tuesday afternoon.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
While there was widespread support for ending conversion practices during the Assembly debate last Tuesday, the reach and scope of legislation was a matter of contention.
A majority of DUP members opposed a motion calling for a ban after failing to amend it.
Mrs Foster and four party colleagues, including fellow Stormont Executive minister Peter Weir and Diane Dodds, abstained in the vote on the substantive motion, rather than opposing it.
This prompted speculation of a split with more religious fundamentalist elements in the party.
The original motion said it was “fundamentally wrong to view our LGBTQ community as requiring a fix or cure”.
The DUP amendment, while supporting a potential ban on gay conversion practices, sought to include protections for “legitimate religious activities such as preaching, prayer and pastoral support”, insisting those do not represent conversion therapies.
The amendment, which was defeated by 59 votes to 28, was criticised by political rivals for attempting to remove the line from the original motion saying it was wrong to view the LGBTQ community as requiring a “fix or cure”.
While Mrs Foster and her four party colleagues voted for the amendment, they did not oppose the unamended substantive motion.