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Arlene Foster could keep steady hand on the tiller if Peter Robinson steps aside


Finance Minister Arlene Foster

Finance Minister Arlene Foster

Finance Minister Arlene Foster

As the First Minister was recovering in hospital last night following a suspected heart attack, speculation was mounting that Finance Minister Arlene Foster could be set to step into his role.

It's not yet known if Peter Robinson will step aside in order to recuperate - but Mrs Foster is believed to be the leading contender to replace the 66-year-old should he decide to.

Popular, capable and regarded as a safe pair of hands, Mrs Foster (44) - who has served as MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone since 2003 - has already proved herself more than able of taking over the reigns of power in unexpected circumstances.

In January 2010, during the fallout from the Iris Robinson scandal, Mrs Foster assumed the role of First Minister after Peter Robinson temporarily stepped aside for six weeks.

Others had also been in the frame, including deputy leader Nigel Dodds, new health minister Simon Hamilton and veteran Sammy Wilson, then a minister.

But Mr Robinson's choice of the Fermanagh MLA demonstrated that he trusted her to keep things ticking over until his return.

Some have speculated that Mrs Foster was regarded as someone who wouldn't undermine the First Minister in his absence, while others wondered whether he was anointing a successor.

The move came after the BBC Spotlight programme reported that Mr Robinson's wife Iris obtained £50,000 from two developers for her teenage lover and it was alleged that Mr Robinson did not report her financial dealings to the relevant authorities.

As newly appointed finance minister, Mrs Foster is currently in talks with Sinn Fein and the SDLP to break the impasse over the Welfare Reform Bill which is due to be put to the Assembly today. Having studied law at Queen's University Belfast, where she was introduced to the cut and thrust of politics, Mrs Foster was seen as a rising star within the Ulster Unionist Party, and was elected an honorary secretary of the party at the age of just 25 in 1995. Mrs Foster, or Kelly as she was then, also headed the Ulster Young Unionist Council and at one time was tipped as a possible future leader of the Ulster Unionists.

First elected as an MLA in 2003 at the age of 33, she was on the anti-Good Friday Agreement wing of the party and was part of a group known as the "baby barristers" hostile to David Trimble's leadership.

Up until then, she had been a solicitor in private practice in Portadown and Enniskillen. Once tipped to lead the UUP, Mrs Foster defected to the DUP with fellow Ulster Unionist MLA Jeffrey Donaldson in 2004.

In 2005 she was selected as the party's candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the general election, finishing second to Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew.

The mother-of-three once asserted that political parties in Northern Ireland were "boys' clubs" - but then went on to disprove her own theory when she was appointed environment minister in 2007. In February 2008 she was awarded the Parliamentarian/Assembly Member of the Year, at the Women in Public Life Awards in London.

Later that year she was moved to the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) where she served for the next seven years before taking over as finance minister from fellow DUP MLA Simon Hamilton earlier this month.

Belfast Telegraph