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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.

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."

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.

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