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Arlene Foster: A political trailblazer who has shattered glass ceiling in record-breaking fashion

Suzanne Breen first encountered 25-year-old Young Unionist Arlene Foster two decades ago and has been following her unstoppable trajectory to the positions of leader of the DUP and First Minister ever since.

Published 18/12/2015

Arlene Foster at Parliament Buildings, Stormont
Arlene Foster at Parliament Buildings, Stormont
Arlene Foster in her Ulster Unionist days

Rarely have we been able to celebrate a trailblazing woman in Northern Ireland politics, but today, at last, we can.

Let's savour every magnificent minute of it. Arlene Foster's meteoric rise to become DUP leader - and in three weeks' time First Minister - is truly ground-breaking.

It was almost 30 years after joining the Scottish Nationalist Party that Nicola Sturgeon seized the reins of power. Margaret Thatcher took a quarter-of-a-century to rise to the top of the Tories and another four years after that to become Prime Minister.

Arlene Foster has secured the two top positions in local politics just a decade after joining the DUP.

Far more than any of the over-hyped "hand of history" occasions, carefully stage-managed by Government suits, Arlene's success shows that Northern Ireland isn't just moving with the times - we're capable of doing it at record-breaking speed.

Of course, there have been other women prominent in local politics. Margaret Ritchie was the first female to lead a mainstream party. However, given the SDLP's declining fortunes, her leadership unfortunately, had negligible impact.

Before that came the Women's Coalition, but, for me, they offered no inspiration. They were little more than a Northern Ireland Office-sponsored outfit. Their reach never extended beyond a small section of the chattering classes.

They secured a moderate number of votes in South Belfast and North Down to win two Assembly seats in 1998. But, by the next election, these were lost and the party's vote plummeted to a miserable 0.4%.

Whereas the Women's Coalition complained endlessly about the argy-bargy of politics here, Arlene has unflinchingly embraced every battle with the boys in the Stormont chamber.

She is the genuine article. From her teenage years she wanted to be a politician. It's part of her DNA. That instinctive political drive expressed by former House of Commons speaker Betty Boothroyd rings true for Arlene as well: "My desire to get here was like miners' coal dust. It was under my fingers. I couldn't scrub it out."

Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister smiles at a hotel in Belfast after being elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. AFP/Getty Images
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister smiles at a hotel in Belfast after being elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. AFP/Getty Images
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister walks from the lectern after the election contest for leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Belfast on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Former Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Peter Robinson (L) shares a joke with the new leader Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister in Belfast after the leadership contest on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Former DUP leader Peter Robinson (R) listens as the new leader Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister speaks in Belfast after the election contest for leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Former DUP leader Peter Robinson (L) claps as the new leader Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister in Belfast speaks after the election contest for leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Former DUP leader Peter Robinson (L) claps as the new leader Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister in Belfast speaks after the election contest for leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Former DUP leader Peter Robinson (L) and new leader Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister in Belfast wave after the election contest for leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Former DUP leader Peter Robinson (L) and deputy leader Nigel Dodds (R) raise the arms of new leader Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister in Belfast after being elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Former DUP leader Peter Robinson (L) and deputy leader Nigel Dodds (R) raise the arms of new leader Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister in Belfast after being elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Former DUP leader Peter Robinson (L) and deputy leader Nigel Dodds (R) raise their hands with new leader Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister in Belfast after being elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: The new DUP leader Arlene Foster (R) shares a joke with outgoing leader Peter Robinson at the Park Avenue hotel after the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster succeeds Peter Robinson and becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: The new DUP leader Arlene Foster (L) addresses the media and party colleagues watched by Peter Robinson (R) at the Park Avenue hotel after the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster succeeds Peter Robinson and becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: The new DUP leader Arlene Foster (C) is congratulated by outgoing leader Peter Robinson (L) and deputy leader Nigel Dodds (R) at the Park Avenue hotel after the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster succeeds Peter Robinson and becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: The new DUP leader Arlene Foster (R) is congratulated by outgoing leader Peter Robinson (L) at the Park Avenue hotel after the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster succeeds Peter Robinson and becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: The new DUP leader Arlene Foster addresses the media and party colleagues at the Park Avenue hotel after the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster succeeds Peter Robinson and becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: The new DUP leader Arlene Foster (C) addresses the media and party colleagues at the Park Avenue hotel after the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster succeeds Peter Robinson and becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: The new DUP leader Arlene Foster (R) is congratulated by outgoing leader Peter Robinson (L) at the Park Avenue hotel after the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster succeeds Peter Robinson and becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: The new DUP leader Arlene Foster addresses the media and party colleagues at the Park Avenue hotel after the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster succeeds Peter Robinson and becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: The new DUP leader Arlene Foster (R) addresses the media and party colleagues watched by Peter Robinson at the Park Avenue hotel after the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster succeeds Peter Robinson and becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: The new DUP leader Arlene Foster (R) is congratulated by outgoing leader Peter Robinson (L) at the Park Avenue hotel after the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster succeeds Peter Robinson and becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: The new DUP leader Arlene Foster (R) is congratulated by outgoing leader Peter Robinson (L) at the Park Avenue hotel after the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster succeeds Peter Robinson and becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Arlene Foster (DUP) attends a meeting at the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast
Arlene Foster (DUP) attends a meeting at the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast
Arlene Foster (DUP) attends a meeting at the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 17th December 2015 New Leader of the DUP Arlene Foster pictured at a Belfast Hotel where she was chosen as party leader of the DUP. She is pictured with Ian Paisley MP. Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 17/12/2015 Arlene Foster (DUP) attends a meeting at the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast on Thursday evening, As the DUP set to confirm Arlene Foster as their new party leader. Ms Foster is the only name that has been put forward for the consideration and will be the first woman to take up the post. It comes after current party leader Peter Robinson announced his decision to retire in the wake of the Fresh Start agreement reached at Stormont last month. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: DUP leader in waiting Arlene Foster poses for photographs with party colleagues at the Park Avenue hotel ahead of the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2016 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster, who will succeed Peter Robinson becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: DUP leader in waiting Arlene Foster (L) jokes with DUP MLA Emma Pengelly (R) at the Park Avenue hotel ahead of the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2016 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster, who will succeed Peter Robinson becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: DUP leader in waiting Arlene Foster (C) jokes with party colleagues at the Park Avenue hotel ahead of the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2016 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster, who will succeed Peter Robinson becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - DECEMBER 17: DUP leader in waiting Arlene Foster (L) jokes with Emma Pengelly (2nd L) at the Park Avenue hotel ahead of the Democratic Unionist Party electoral college meeting on December 17, 2016 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster, who will succeed Peter Robinson becomes the first female leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. No other nominations were put forward for the role of leader. Mrs Foster will also be appointed as the new Northern Ireland first minister in the coming weeks. The former Ulster Unionist Party member has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the DUP following her defection in 2004, twice standing in as temporary first minister for Peter Robinson in times of personal and political crisis. The DUP remain the largest political party within the provinces' Executive government. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Arlene Foster (R), Northern Ireland Finance Minister poses for a picture at a hotel in Belfast before being elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister smiles at a hotel in Belfast before being elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister arrives at a hotel in Belfast to be elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister arrives at a hotel in Belfast to be elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 17th December 2015 New Leader of the DUP Arlene Foster pictured at a Belfast Hotel where she was chosen as party leader of the DUP. Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Pacemaker Press 14/11/2013 Arlene Foster at the funeral of Eddie McGrady, the former South Down MP at St Patrick's Church in Downpatrick on thursday , Mr McGrady was later then buried at St Patrick's Cemetery, Saul. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
PACEMAKER BFST Former Ulster Unionist Arlene Foster
PACEMAKER BELFAST 08/09/2015: Theresa Villiers has told MPs that despite a request from the DUP, the government does not think the time is right to suspend Northern Ireland's devolved institutions. Ms Villiers will be joined by Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan at Stormont House for talks with the Northern Ireland political party. The DUP's Arlene Foster pictured arriving for the talks. Picture By: Arthur Allison.
Pacemaker Press 3/7/2012 First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness with Tourism Minister Arlene Foster during the opening of the New Visitors centre at the Giants Causeway in Co Antrim Yesterday, The £18.5m building has taken 18 months to complete and includes exhibition spaces, a cafe and shops. Walks and trails around the site have also been upgraded, with the addition of a new accessible cliff-top walk for families and people with disabilities .PIcture Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker
PACEMAKER BELFAST 12/10/2011 Arlene Foster DUP with Open Champion Darren Clarke who was awarded the freedom of the borough of Dungannon pictured at Dungannon Golf Club where he began his career. Photo Colm O'Reilly/Pacemaker Press
Pacemaker Press 18/1/10 Stand in First Minister Arlene Foster with journalist Eamonn Malley at Stormont yesterday as crunch talks take place on Policing and Justice Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker
11/1/2010. NEWLY APPOINTED FIRST MINISTER ARLENE FOSTER addresses the media AT STORMONT AFTERNOON. PICTURE CHARLES MCQUILLAN/PACEMAKER.
pacemaker press 11/8/13. Minister Arlene Foster and Hundreds of people protested at a controversial republican parade taking place in Castlederg, County Tyrone. The Tyrone Volunteers Day Parade commemorates republicans who died during the Troubles, including two IRA men killed by their own bomb. Several hundred bandsmen and republican supporters took part. Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers had urged organisers to call off the march, saying it was "causing great hurt" to victims ofterrorism. The parade, which is supported by Sinn Féin, began after 15:00 BST on Sunday and supporters clapped as it moved off. picture Mark marlow/pacemaker press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 1/06/06 DUP Policing board members Arlene Foster and Ian Paisley Junior pictured at the Policing Board's monthly meeting today where they questioned the Ulster Unionists policy of letting PUP member David Ervine join their parliamentry party at Stormont inb the light of the suspected UVF murder attempt on Mark Haddock
Pictured at Hillsborough Court House, an example of an historic listed building, are Arlene Foster, Minister of the Environment and Richard Rogers, Chief Executive, Environment and Heritage Service.  The Minister has announced two major funding initiatives totalling £3.9 million for Northern's Ireland's historic listed buildings.  The historic heritage has great potential both socially and economically and it is hoped many more listed buildings willenefit from this additional funding.
PACEMAKER BFST 05-01-04:DUP party leaders Ian Paisley & Peter Robinson cant hide his delight at the press conference at Stormont to announce that Arlene Foster were joining the DUP after resigning from the UUP last month. 11/1/10 DUP leader Peter Robinson has announced he is to step aside for six weeks as First Minister amid the storm over his wife's private life and finances. Mr Robinson has designated Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster to take charge in the interim.
PACEMAKER PRESS BELFAST 20-05-2008: His Royal Highness,The Prince of Wales, was guest of honour at the 'Windows of Opportunity' Heritage and regeneration Conference at Stormont Hotel in Belfast. His Royal Highness was greeted by Arlene Foster MLA, Minister of the Environment,and Richard Rogers,Chief Executive for Environment and Heritage Service. PICTURE BY: ARTHUR ALLISON.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland -18th November 2015 Finance Minster Arlene Foster pictured in her office at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 17th December 2015 Portrait of Arlene Foster at Parliament Buildings, Stormont in advance of becoming DUP leader. Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th December 2015 Arlene Foster pictured in the DUP office in Lisburn with Liam Clarke. Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th December 2015 Arlene Foster pictured in Castle Street, Lisburn. Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

As the DUP's third leader, she combines the strengths of both her predecessors. Ian Paisley was big on personality and weak on policy detail. Peter Robinson was the polar opposite. Nobody doubted his intellect, but he was too technocratic. The public just didn't take to him.

Arlene is smart and warm. She knows how to work a room. And, like both Paisley and Robinson, she's as tough as nails - an absolute prerequisite for the job. She has never been one for the fluffy, softer issues that female politicians can too often gravitate towards. On constitutional and security issues she can cut it with the best of her male opponents.

It's 20 years since I first met Arlene Kelly (as she was then), the chairperson of the Young Unionists whom everybody said was going places. She was tipped to become the UUP's first female MP - something she had dreamed of since she was 17. Then, it all went devastatingly wrong.

She clashed with the UUP leadership over the Good Friday Agreement. As she said herself: "If I'd been interested only in career success I'd have kept my mouth shut, but I happened to believe in principles."

She stood her ground. I remember her travelling up to Belfast from Fermanagh for confrontations with party bigwigs while heavily pregnant. A handful of weeks before she gave birth to her second child she addressed a stormy UUP AGM.

"As I was speaking, I could see eyebrows being raised," she told me. "Some delegates were thinking: 'How awful getting up to speak in her condition'." Arlene paid as much attention to them as she did to David Trimble, who would phone to tell her not to go on TV airing her opinions. "Of course, I ignored him," she said.

The situation was even more stressful because, while challenging leadership policies, she worked as a solicitor in the Enniskillen practice of UUP chairman James Cooper. But she went searching for, and found, another job, which is no mean feat in late pregnancy.

I followed Arlene's career with interest as she joined the DUP in 2004. Despite Jeffrey Donaldson's defection dominating the headlines at the time, I reckoned she was the one to watch.

Her passion and approachable, down-to-earth personality were always going to take her places in the DUP, but I never imagined how far or how fast that would be.

The rise of a female Anglican through the ranks has been remarkable.

Indeed, it is reminiscent of that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel - a divorced Protestant who, against the odds, made it in a Catholic party.

Arlene's easy, confident, no-frills style resembles Merkel's. And she works ferociously hard, too. No politician in Parliament Buildings puts in more hours. She chalks up a daily 160-mile round-trip commute from Fermanagh and regularly attends evening functions.

Officials say she takes home boxes of papers at night. She fires through documents and arrives in the next morning fully on top of the issues. That she has done this while raising three young children makes her all the more formidable.

You won't hear Arlene whinge about juggling work and family demands; she just gets on with it. So the ministerial car will stop at her local Tesco at an ungodly time of night, or she will set off in search of a sweater for one of her kids after a 12-hour day.

All these attributes mean that nobody in the DUP, not even those on the party's fundamentalist wing, questions her ability or right to be First Minister. A few are concerned about her holding the position of DUP leader as well, but these are mild reservations, not resentment.

While she was Mr Robinson's anointed successor - and she clearly couldn't have hurtled through the ranks without him - everyone in the party acknowledges that she has earned her stripes.

The hope among Robinson's DUP critics is that Arlene won't spend as much time as he did plotting in Stormont Castle, but will do what she does best - getting out and meeting people.

She is as yet untested in the roles of policy formulation and strategy. It also remains to be seen how, when the honeymoon period is over, she manages the party's big personalities.

The area where she will surely shine is reconnecting with DUP grassroots. Already invitations for her to visit local branches are coming in thick and fast.

She's regarded as a vote-winner. I can't think of one Assembly election candidate, whatever wing of the party they inhabit, who won't want her out canvassing with them come the spring.

Arlene Foster has a major task ahead of her in maintaining the DUP's position as the largest party here. Undoubtedly, in future, I'll find myself criticising some stances she takes.

But, for now, I'm raising a glass to her - and the amazing trail she has blazed.

Belfast Telegraph

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