When Arlene Foster was elected to the position of honorary secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1996 (she was just 26), a veteran party officer told me: "Watch her, 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, wrote it down and each kept a copy. We both lost when she left the UUP at the end of 2003.
When I asked her, in May 2015, if she would ever have become leader had she stayed in the party, she gave me a one-word answer: no.
Pushing her a little, she added: "Joining the DUP 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 the welcome I received. I found a vibrancy in the DUP that didn't exist in the UUP and a real and genuine support and interest in the individual. The DUP promotes on merit."
It is often forgotten that when Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson defected to the DUP, he was regarded as the bigger catch and certainly someone who had greater potential to rattle the UUP and open the floodgates for anti-Agreement UUP voters to switch to the DUP.
For many of her new colleagues in the DUP, Foster would have been a relatively unknown figure. "She came as part of the Donaldson package," is how one DUP MLA put it to me.
A former UUP MLA told me at the time: "She'll disappear in that party and be forgotten about within a year. Peter Robinson just wanted her to heap more embarrassment on (David) Trimble."
Yet, it is Foster who is now leader and First Minister.
Born on July 17, 1970, Foster's father, John, was a part-time farmer and full-time police officer, whom the IRA tried to kill when Foster was eight, forcing the family to move to the relatively safe area of Lisnaskea.
A few years later, she was on a school bus that was targeted by the IRA because the driver was a soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment. A girl sitting near her was seriously injured in the attack.
Memories like that never leave you, so it seems reasonable to conclude that they still play a central part in her attitude to Sinn Fein and her sometimes fractious relationship with key Sinn Fein figures.
By her own admission, "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 University Unionist Association by Peter Weir in 1989."
Weir remembers being on the stall and signing Foster up: "Some new members take some persuading and some are never seen again after joining. But Arlene was an enthusiastic and active member from day one, both in association meetings and becoming a member of the Student Council.
"As a minority political grouping, particularly at a time when the Troubles were still happening, there was a natural bonding for all of us, both politically and in terms of friendship."
The friendships and common political bonds forged at that time included the nucleus of what became known as the "baby barrister" group (originally encouraged by Trimble when he became leader in 1995), which was to become one of the greatest thorns in his side during what is best described as the civil war which engulfed - and came very close to destroying - the UUP between 1998 and 2004.
It was a difficult time for Foster: "Tony Blair once told the group that it was easy to say no to the (Belfast) 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."
Her other difficulty lay in the attitude of Trimble's core support group to the party's anti-agreement faction. There were a number of occasions when a common platform might have been constructed, but Trimble's camp (and not always with his knowledge, either) seemed determined not to pursue consensus.
All that mattered was winning each showdown with the Ulster Unionist Council, even when it meant Trimble’s majority shrinking each time.
Ironically, her own Fermanagh/South Tyrone Constituency Association — the party’s largest — was the bedrock of Trimble’s support base and was always able to deliver the key numbers he needed for each vote.
Being one of the leading lights of the party’s anti-agreement lobby in such an overwhelmingly pro-Agreement/pro-Trimble association can’t have been easy for Foster.
Denzil McDaniel, the former editor of the Impartial Reporter in Enniskillen, told me: “Even in her early UUP days, Arlene Foster’s people skills could see her work the room at party gatherings. Allied to her determination that she wasn’t there to make the tea, the combination of the personality and ambition of a young woman didn’t always sit well with the stiff, middle-aged male hierarchy. So, it’s fair to say there were already tensions when Arlene was outspoken about the direction of the party. And when she defected to the DUP, there was considerable animosity.”
Much of that animosity was fuelled by the fact that Foster had been selected by the UUP as a candidate for the 2003 Assembly election (held in November), yet defected to the DUP a matter of weeks later.
And it was that animosity which made it impossible for the UUP and DUP to reach agreement on a joint candidate for the 2005 General Election.
But as the DUP’s Lord Morrow (a former MLA in Fermanagh/South Tyrone) told me: “Locally, Arlene brought both new members and voters to the DUP. Having joined, she very quickly became an integral member of the party structures, both locally and province-wide. The enthusiasm and energy she brought were repaid in kind by the wider membership, who took her to their hearts immediately.”
On January 11, 2010, when Peter Robinson announced he was standing aside as First Minister to “devote time to deal with family matters”, there was considerable surprise that he chose Foster to stand in for him, rather than Nigel Dodds, or even Sammy Wilson.
Some DUP MLAs and commentators wondered if he had chosen her because he trusted her not to take the opportunity to undermine him in what was likely to be a critical time in his political and personal life.
Whatever the real reason for his decision (and he will have been aware that a number of senior members, including some who still resented the brutal coup against Paisley a couple of years earlier, were briefing against him), it was a clear signal that he recognised her as a potential leader, which she became five years later.
To describe her time, so far, as leader as tumultuous would actually be an understatement: Brexit; RHI; the ‘crocodile’ comments; the collapse of the Assembly for three years; the worst election result in unionism’s history in March 2017, when it failed to win a majority in a local assembly/parliament; the ‘Confidence and Supply’ arrangement with the Conservative Government; serial ‘betrayals’ by Theresa May and Boris Johnson; the debacle over the Irish Language Act and the breakdown of the talks process in February 2018; the Ian Paisley ‘free holiday’ saga; the loss of the kingmaker role, along with Nigel Dodds and Emma Pengelly, in December 2019; Covid-19; the rebooting of the Assembly and New Decade, New Approach agreement in January; the spectacular falling-out with Sinn Fein over the Storey funeral; and the seeming certainty of the border down the Irish Sea.
That’s an awful lot of drama in just five years; the sort of drama which might have brought other leaders to their knees. But she has hung on, taking blow after blow after blow.
At a couple of moments, there was evidence of internal dissatisfaction and even an attempt to organise a coup to remove her. On one occasion she got lucky: had the DUP not found itself in the kingmaker role in Westminster just weeks after the disastrous Assembly result, it’s likely that her weakness would have been mercilessly exposed.
On another occasion —the findings of the RHI report — she was personally vindicated, although the findings were still embarrassing for others in the DUP.
With her 50th birthday just around the corner, she will be hoping for a present in the form of some lessening of the relentless pressure she has endured. That seems unlikely, though.
The economic consequences of Covid-19 and the likelihood of higher levels of infection during the longer, colder, wetter, darker days of autumn/winter will require a mixture of difficult — and probably unpopular — decisions.
And if the damage done to relationships between Sinn Fein and the other Executive parties isn’t repaired fairly quickly, there remains the possibility of eventual collapse.
Brexit, of course, hasn’t gone away, either; nor has the possibility of a ‘no-deal’ exit.
The border down the Irish Sea dimension isn’t, I think, an existential crisis for unionism (although it remains hugely embarrassing for the DUP), but leaving without a deal brings the prospect of economic chaos and a ramping up of the unity and border poll project by Sinn Fein.
The year 2021 marks the centenary of Northern Ireland and, just a few years ago, the DUP would have hoped to have been leading the celebrations, hosting visitors from across the world and organising broader UK events. That will all be much smaller scale stuff now.
But Foster will still be determined to demonstrate the value of the Union and the long-term success of Northern Ireland, albeit against a background where the independence lobby in Scotland is building traction.
Crucially, there doesn’t even seem to be the whiff of opposition to her leadership within the party. And, given the assorted trials she has endured since she inherited the role (there was no contest), that’s something she’ll be happy to celebrate.
Also, there is no hammer-blow challenge to her from the UUP or TUV at the moment — and that’s likely to remain the case —so, again, that takes some pressure off her.
One of her former UUP colleagues, whom I spoke to for this piece (he didn’t want to be named) had this to say of her: “Looking back, the biggest mistake the UUP made was to let Arlene and others like her go. We should have taken her arguments on board and found a way of accommodating them.
“Sure, the DUP is doing what we would have done anyway had we stayed in top place. I was angry when she left and she has made some big mistakes since then. That said, I respect her and, since 2007, she has always got my first preference in this constituency.”
I think Foster would be very happy to view and then bank that comment as an unexpected and early birthday present.