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New First Minister Arlene Foster calls for focus on 'consensus not conflict'

Published 11/01/2016

Arlene Foster outside Parliament Buildings
Arlene Foster outside Parliament Buildings

Northern Ireland's new First Minister has expressed hope her tenure leading Stormont's power-sharing government will be more about consensus than conflict.

Arlene Foster, the first woman appointed to one of the devolved administration's two top jobs, urged political rivals to join her in a new way of doing business - to help restore the institution's damaged public image.

At 45, Mrs Foster is also the youngest politician to take the reins of power in Belfast.

"I'm tired of Stormont being a watchword for arguing and bickering," she told a packed Assembly chamber at Parliament Buildings after her appointment was confirmed.

"That's not why our people elected us. They did so to provide a better future for us all.

"I will do all I can to change the political culture of this place but I can't change that alone.

"We can only do it by working together.

"I know from experience it won't be easy. Real change never is. But I ask today that we find a new way of doing business, one that places a greater premium on consensus than on conflict."

The married mother-of-three from Co Fermanagh has succeeded retiring Peter Robinson as First Minister.

Mrs Foster, who defected to the DUP from the Ulster Unionists in 2004, has assumed office alongside long-serving Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

She had already replaced Mr Robinson as leader of the region's largest political party - the Democratic Unionists.

Mr Robinson, 67, announced his intention to retire from frontline politics last November, days after signing a political deal with Sinn Fein and the British and Irish Governments to stabilise the rocking administration.

In his last speech from the front bench, Mr Robinson said he was leaving confident that devolution had been secured for generations to come.

"Though we don't always fully appreciate it, devolution underpins the level of peace and stability we enjoy today," he said.

"After 35 years of stop-go government, devolution, with local people taking the decisions, is once again the norm."

As first and deputy first ministers are required to be appointed together, Mr McGuinness was re-nominated to his role as part of Monday's Assembly procedures.

Mrs Foster experienced the Troubles first hand. Her father, a part-time police officer, was shot and badly injured in an IRA murder bid and, as a schoolgirl, she was travelling on a school bus that was blown up in an attempt to kill its driver, an off-duty soldier.

She referenced the conflict in her inaugural speech, insisting the past should never be forgotten.

"We are all shaped by our history and our experience," she said.

"Many of us live with the scars, emotional and real that we have endured.

"Far too often during my earlier years I saw the devastating effect that terrorism and violence had on our community.

"We cannot allow the past to forever blight our future.

"That's why I want to make sure that we never ever go back to the bad old days."

Mrs Foster said she took great pride in being the first woman to hold the office, and also its youngest incumbent.

"I can think of no greater honour than to have the opportunity to serve my country and the people of Northern Ireland as their First Minister," she said.

The new First Minister said the time had come for a "new generation to step forward" to move Northern Ireland forward.

"That is our responsibility now - to create a better future than the past and one where we can live together in a society free of strife and conflict," she said.

Prime Minister David Cameron said in a message on Twitter: "Congratulations to Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland's first female First Minister. I look forward to working with her on a positive future for Northern Ireland."

Mr Cameron's official spokeswoman said the PM was expected to speak to Mrs Foster shortly - though probably not today - about "how they can work together to build a more secure future for Northern Ireland".

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