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Fostering ambition: We profile politician Arlene Foster

By Alex Kane

Published 16/05/2015

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster

Once tipped to be the first female leader of the UUP, Arlene Foster made enemies when she defected to the DUP. Now, she is taking over the very demanding Finance ministry, but does she have Peter Robinson's job in her sights?

On Monday, January 11, 2010, the Speaker informed the Assembly that Peter Robinson had sent him a letter giving notice that "he has designated Mrs Arlene Foster to exercise the functions of the office of First Minister". Robinson was responding to a whirlwind of accusations involving his wife, Iris, and said: "it is particularly painful at this time of great personal trauma. I have to defend myself from an unfounded and mischievous allegation. I need to devote time to deal with family matters."

A blogger posed a question that was on the minds of a lot of people that afternoon: "Any indication as to the reason Arlene Foster has been appointed caretaker? Nigel Dodds is deputy leader of the DUP and would probably be favourite to take over the leadership". Fellow DUP veteran Sammy Wilson, who was also a member of the Executive, would have been another possibility for Robinson. Yet Robinson chose Foster who, at that point, had only been a member of the DUP for six years. Some commentators and DUP MLAs wondered if Robinson appointed Foster because he trusted her not to undermine him in those crucial few weeks of his career: indeed, some wondered if he was also hinting that he regarded her as a potential successor further down the line.

Last week, he promoted her to the position of Finance Minister, one of the highest-profile roles in local politics. As Sinn Fein and the DUP continue their tussle over welfare reform and how to react to the likelihood of more cuts, Foster is going to be at the very heart of the storm.

Robinson trusts her. Senior members of the DUP trust her. Although it's not yet possible to name the date that he will finally relinquish his leadership of the DUP (although he has been dropping hints for a couple of years), it is now clear that Foster will be one of the biggest names in the frame to replace him.

Another contender will be Simon Hamilton, who was handed the similarly high-profile Health portfolio last week. Interestingly, he is also a former member of the UUP - as is new Executive minister Jonathan Bell.

Arlene Isabel Kelly was born on July 17, 1970, in Enniskillen. Her father was a part-time farmer and full-time police officer from Dernawilt, a townland near Rosslea in Co Fermanagh.

Her mum, originally from Sandy Row in Belfast, was a housewife. She has two older sisters - Linda and Julie - and a younger brother, David. She married Brian Foster and they have three children - Sarah (15), George (13) and Ben (8).

She had, she says, "a very happy rural childhood and, as a July baby, some of my earliest memories are of birthday parties in the hay field.

"The worst memory, of course, is when, aged eight, the IRA came to our house to murder my father. Thankfully, they weren't successful and only injured him, but we all had to leave our family home afterwards and move to Lisnaskea."

She was educated at Aghadrumsee and Moat primary schools, the Collegiate Grammar School for Girls in Enniskillen and then Queen's University, where she graduated with a law degree and a certificate in legal studies.

She was a solicitor in private practice in Portadown and Enniskillen until she became an Ulster Unionist MLA for Fermanagh/South Tyrone in 2003.

Queen's was to be her introduction to party politics. "I didn't grow up in a political household, but in one directly affected by the IRA along the border. I was recruited into the Queen's Unionist Association by Peter Weir and was the chairwoman from 1992 to 1993."

When she left Queen's, she remained active in the party through branch membership and the Ulster Young Unionist Council, which she chaired in 1995. In 1996, she became an honorary secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council, the governing body of the UUP. She was also elected to Fermanagh District Council.

At that point, she was a well-regarded and very popular member of the party. And it was around that period, too, that a very senior member of the UUP said to me: "Watch that girl, Alex, and mark my words, she is going to be the first woman leader of this party. She has learned a lot from the likes of Thatcher when it comes to dealing with men in politics." The reason I remember it is that we had a bet on it, wrote it down and each kept a copy. We both lost.

But the decision by the UUP - endorsed by the UUC - to enter talks with Sinn Fein in 1997 (prior to IRA decommissioning) made her position within the party increasingly difficult. "That period was hugely difficult," she said. "Tony Blair once told the group that was known as the 'baby barristers' (a number of the leading lights in the Young Unionists, including her, Peter Weir, Peter King, David Brewster and John Hunter all had legal backgrounds) that it was easy to say no to the Agreement. But he was wrong. He showed no understanding of the people he was talking to. It was actually very, very difficult for us to say no to the Belfast Agreement as up to then we had all been very strong UUP members."

So bitter and personal did the civil war become in the UUP at that time that it tends to be forgotten that many in the so-called anti-Agreement camp weren't, in fact, anti any sort of agreement. Many of them acknowledged that devolution was preferable to direct rule and that devolution would require buy-in from all sides. Their concern was that David Trimble was taking far too much on trust rather than nailing down some of the key planks.

In November 2003, she was elected to the Assembly on an Ulster Unionist ticket, but, along with her close friend Jeffrey Donaldson, she defected to the DUP in January 2003. "It may have been perceived as a difficult move for a female Anglican to make, but it was actually made very easy for me by the warmth of welcome I received. The DUP has evolved and grown over the years and, as Dr Paisley himself used to say, the DUP is a political party, not a church. I found a vibrancy in the DUP that didn't exist in the UUP and a real and genuine support and interest for the individual."

When I ask her if she is surprised by how well she, Simon Hamilton, Peter Weir, Jonathan Bell, Jeffrey Donaldson and others have done in the DUP she says, "No, I'm not surprised at all. The DUP promotes on merit." Interestingly, when I ask if she would have been similarly elevated had she stayed in the UUP she gives a one word answer - no.

That response probably explains her lukewarm response to a possible future merger between her old and new homes: "I think that there is certainly an argument for closer working together. The success of the (electoral) pact has been the increased confidence for the entire unionist electorate and I really welcome that."

She believes that the "jury is still out" on whether Sinn Fein is serious about making Northern Ireland work, and she has concerns about the rise of the SNP: "We must be vigilant against nationalism at a national level as well as here, locally. The Union is a very positive ideal and we must promote it as such."

The mention of her name still ruffles some feathers in the UUP, who haven't forgiven her for "playing a major role in wrecking the party".

But she is now one of the biggest hitters in the DUP and recognised by political opponents and civil servants as "one of the best ministers we have".

She won't be drawn on whether she'll seek the leadership when Robinson steps down, but I would be astonished if she didn't. She won't be drawn, either, on whether she still keeps in contact with David Trimble. One thing is certain, though: if she is the DUP's next leader, it will change the dynamics between the UUP and DUP very considerably.

A life so far

  • Born in Enniskillen in July 1970
  • A leading member of the UUP, she defected to the DUP in 2004
  • She is tipped by many as the next leader of the DUP
  • She was also tipped by many to be a leader of the UUP
  • She has been a member of the Executive since May 2007
  • She loves music and has twice been a wedding singer

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