Since standing down as First Minister and leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster has been looking at a career in the media. And the qualities that took her to the top of the political tree look set to propel her to the summit of her new career
Just months into Arlene Foster’s early tenure as DUP leader, a 1988 interview she gave as a teenager to the formidable, now retired, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman — once described as a “Rottweiler” for his no-holds-barred approach to skewering the political establishment — resurfaced.
Her deftness and sure-footed replies to his questions about the IRA school bus bomb blast she had been caught up in, as well as setting the BBC presenter straight on what was needed to end the Troubles, demonstrated tact tempered by a dose of realism. It foreshadowed the political career that was to follow for the Fermanagh woman.
But now she has left that career far behind, that interview exchange may also have hinted at qualities that make a switch to a career in the media no surprise.
In recent weeks, Mrs Foster has been busy, from writing high-profile op-eds for the Daily Telegraph, to appearing on Good Morning Britain, to being unveiled as a regular commentator on fledgling current affairs channel GB News.
It was announced, with much fanfare, that she would appear on The Political Correction programme, hosted by Brexiteer Nigel Farage, every Sunday morning.
In her first appearance, sat on a long sofa alongside trade unionist Paul Embery, Mrs Foster set out clearly why she accepted the gig, telling Farage that she saw it as “an opportunity to have a space for civilised discussion in a meaningful way”.
She added that she was joining the pro-Union station to “bring very much Northern Ireland into the mainstream of politics”.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, the former Brexit Party leader said Mrs Foster’s political acumen and experience was a great asset to GB News.
“Arlene Foster joining GB News as a contributor shows that the station recognises Northern Ireland is a full part of the UK,” said Mr Farage. “I have no doubt that she will use her communication skills and sharp political brain to full effect on air and in future endeavours.”
The prominent eurosceptic’s career post-Brexit also illustrates that politicians can continue to exert considerable influence on the media landscape — and indeed the culture at large — without the need for the political arena.
Farage has developed a successful broadcasting career; from hosting his own radio phone-in show on LBC (Leading Britain’s Conversation), a three-year stint that ended last June when he resigned following a backlash after comments made on air when he compared Black Lives Matter protesters to the Taliban for demolishing statues of slave traders.
Controversies aside, the Farage handbook on the transition from politician to successful media pundit/broadcaster may serve as a template for Mrs Foster.
Broadcast careers, for those used to walking the corridors of power, tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum; at one end, there are the Michael Portillos (BBC Two passion projects on train journeys and contributions to This Week) and on the other the more showbiz, glitzy option (see Labour’s Ed Balls and Northern Ireland-born ex-Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, who had high-profile stints on shows like Strictly Come Dancing and I’m a Celebrity… respectively)
Foremost, she has kicked off her punditry focusing on the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol — the row over the trade border down the Irish Sea — which had united unionists in condemnation.
Earlier this month, she was also appointed chair of the Castlereagh Foundation, which will support academic research around shifting patterns of social identity in Northern Ireland.
Whatever lies in the long grass, Mrs Foster is likely to diligently contemplate any opportunity, and carefully weigh up the pros and cons. She will want to avoid anything that would be seen to undermine her legacy as the first woman to hold the roles as First Minister of Northern Ireland and DUP leader.
Northern Ireland journalist and former special adviser Peter Cardwell — who secured Mrs Foster’s first broadcast interview since she stepped down for TalkRadio — believes the opportunities are there for the taking for the ex-politician.
From the lucrative world of after-dinner speaking, to writing an autobiography, to high-profile opinion pieces in national media titles, it’s all on the table, he explains.
“I would be surprised if she isn’t speaking to publishers about a book deal and getting it out as quickly as possible,” says Cardwell. “People will be interested in her rise from solicitor to leader of a country, but not only that, she was a crucial figure in the UK during the two years of the Confidence and Supply agreement and the fact she was in and out of Downing Street talking to (former Tory prime minister) Theresa May very, very frequently during the Brexit negotiations.”
Northern Ireland politicos will also be clambering to gain an insight into her fractious departure from the DUP — one which prompted some political commentators, and its own party members, to decry that she had been unceremoniously ousted by a party which she had been so loyal to.
Cardwell also insists that Mrs Foster’s appeal extends far beyond her much loved homeland, starting with her own personal story of the Troubles, not only the school bus blast when she was 16, but one which began when she was just eight years old when her father, John Kelly, a farmer and part-time RUC reservist, was shot and wounded by the IRA at the family home.
Despite her very vocal reservations over the Good Friday Agreement, she would later share her ministerial office with the late Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.
“The thing we forgot about our local politicians is that they often have incredible stories to tell the world,” explains Cardwell. “All of that is taken for granted by us here in Northern Ireland now; the peace process and the past 20 years and so forth, but to the international audience, that is something that is unique and that is an incredible story to tell.
“That is something Arlene Foster is going to be in huge demand for on the international speaking circuit. She probably won’t earn the money, say as a former US president or someone like that would, but if you look at Theresa May she has been earning tens of thousands of pounds giving lectures and seminars, even by Zoom.
“I think there will be a lot of publishers looking for a book from her. I think she has a lot of stories to tell. In terms of broadcasting, she can do as little or as much as she wants. With GB News, she wants to put Northern Ireland on the map in the UK sense.”
GB News, the UK’s first new news station in more than two decades, has not been shy at proclaiming its patriotism — a position which dovetails nicely with Mrs Foster’s own unionist credentials.
News of her appointment sparked a mixed reaction on social media. Some critics of the channel regarded it as a retrograde move. They claimed it undermined the apparent softening of her position on LGBTQ+ issues when she appeared to break with the rest of her party on the issue of so-called “gay conversion therapy”.
In April, the majority of the DUP had voted against a motion calling for it to be banned, insisting any legislation to outlaw the practice needed safeguards in place for Churches.
It was a free vote, but Mrs Foster’s decision to abstain (along with five other DUP members) was seen as the final straw for disgruntled prominent figures within the party, triggering her ousting.
Cardwell argues her link-up with GB News is a logical fit — given her own political ideological stance.
“A lot of her influence will be with the Conservative Party, with the centre-Right, and that’s probably the people she wants to influence as well,” he says. “There’s not a huge point in Arlene writing something for (centre-Left news outlet) the Guardian, but she has a captive audience on the centre-Right, which will take her seriously and know she is someone with integrity and with ability and experience. It’s no surprise to me that she’s decided to contribute to GB News and the Daily Telegraph.”
Jon Tonge, Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and a regular political commentator for the Belfast Telegraph, insists, however, that Mrs Foster has defied all expectations by opting for a media career.
“The assumption had been that she would be entering the House of Lords, rather than going on GB News — perhaps that may come to pass,” he reflects.
Setting aside his own reservations about the long-term financial viability of the channel, he believes it could offer a platform for viewers to see another side of a leader no longer constrained by the limitations of the role.
“She probably will be quite funny and witty on it, because it’s a lot less pressured than the job she had,” explains Tonge. “It doesn’t come much tougher than being the First Minister of Northern Ireland and running the DUP, a party that has been difficult to manage for quite a lot of time she was leader.”
Shona Jago-Curtis, managing director of Jago Communications, a leading PR company with offices in Belfast and Dublin, agrees the role could be a turning point in how the unionist politician is perceived by the public — both here and UK-wide.
“I’m watching on with interest to see how this plays out. In Northern Ireland, she is widely known as being the former leader of the DUP and the former First Minister and her political views are well documented,” she says.
“Some may have a polarised opinion of her and it will be interesting to see if people’s views change as we see more of her personality come out.”
Likewise, Peter Cardwell stresses there are already signs that Mrs Foster has the capacity to engage with a broader audience on major issues of national, as well as global, significance.
She has long advocated for social media platforms to be more accountable for online abuse; speaking out about how women in politics and with public profiles are targeted by trolls.
Mrs Foster was also awarded £125,000 in damages in a high-profile libel case against celebrity medic Dr Christian Jessen, who tweeted a defamatory and untrue claim that she had been having an extra-marital affair.
Cardwell says that it was clear during their interview that her campaign for a verification process to tackle online abuse is “absolutely fundamental” to her.
The revelation from the Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA, who is understood to be relinquishing her Assembly seat in the coming weeks, that her children received death threats and she herself had been told that she should be “hanging from a tree” prompted an outpouring of support.
“That was something she was very keen to talk about and I wanted to give her the space on air to talk about,” adds Cardwell. “Because women, especially in public life, get trolled and there is real, visceral misogyny out there. She has a huge voice. Post-politics, she is free to say and do as she wants. She could happily have a quiet life. I would imagine she is financially comfortable. She doesn’t have to do anything.
“I think she’s going to have a campaigning role in terms of online harms. She’s going to really hold the Government’s feet to the fire on the upcoming legislation.”
Similarly, pushing the Government to resolve the thorny issue of the Protocol will be another cause celebre for the qualified solicitor.
“Whatever thoughts you have about the Protocol, the fact is that Northern Ireland needs to be part of the bigger conversation and Arlene Foster is going to be at the heart of that,” adds Cardwell.
“And it is one that a lot of people on mainland UK are not aware of. I think raising that awareness and being a national figure, rather than just a Northern Ireland figure, is something that Arlene Foster a) is and b) will continue to be. We’re going to hear a lot more from her.”
“That’s Life”, Arlene Foster had sung, giving her best Frank Sinatra impression, on her exit from the political stage, both figuratively and literally, at her final official engagement at the British-Irish Council summit in June. At the time, it left political and media pundits pondering what her next move would be. Fast-forward two months and she appears to be giving them a run for their money.
She may soon be singing another Sinatra tune: The Best is Yet to Come.