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Martin McGuinness’s praise for my dad’s attacker is hard to take, but we have work to do, says First Minister Arlene Foster

BBC Spotlight journalist Declan Lawn was given exclusive behind-the-scenes access to First Minister Arlene Foster during her first month in office. And she reveals that she's prepared to serve alongside Martin McGuinness - even though he called the IRA terrorist who tried to murder her father a 'saint'

The first time I met Arlene Foster couldn't really be described as a meeting - it was more of a surprise.

One night, a couple of years ago, I was behind the scenes on the Nolan TV show. That night country singer Nathan Carter was on, followed by a political discussion featuring spokespeople from all the main parties.

Carter took to the stage and, as he was singing, most of the politicians filtered out of their dressing rooms into the studio to get ready for the debate.

But as I walked up the corridor I heard loud (and, admittedly, pretty decent) singing coming from one of the dressing rooms. Could it be one of my colleagues? I had to check.

I popped my head around the door only to find Mrs Foster watching the live feed on the TV in the corner and enthusiastically singing and dancing along to Wagon Wheel.

Seeing me, she just smiled broadly and asked: "Do they want me in there now?"

Four minutes later, in front of the studio audience, she was singing a different tune: tearing strips off her political rivals in a bravura display of political passion.

I thought to myself then that Arlene Foster was probably someone who could surprise you.

Fast-forward a couple of years and and I'm being led through the corridors of Stormont for my first proper meeting with her.

She became First Minister less than an hour earlier and the atmosphere around her is one of electric bustle. I can't help get the feeling that, when you become First Minister, colleagues become courtiers and there's nothing you can do about it.

Flowers are being delivered. People are handing her notes. Her phone keeps beeping. An aide tells her that David Cameron has just tweeted her a public message of congratulations and apparently wants to phone her to say hello.

In the middle of it all she looks happy and unmistakably excited. I have a feeling that, if she could burst into Wagon Wheel, she would.

I ask her how it feels.

"A little bit bizarre... a bit surreal," she says, smiling broadly. "Like it's not really happening."

In fact it has been happening for a long time. For many observers, a seminal moment in Arlene Foster's rise within the DUP was her six-week stint as acting First Minister after Peter Robinson temporarily stepped aside in 2010 following a Spotlight investigation into financial transactions arising from his wife's affair with Kirk McCambley.

It was at that point many people - both within the DUP and outside it - began to regard her as a potential leadership contender, alongside party stalwarts such as Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson.

When put in context, that in itself was a remarkable development. As a defector from the UUP, she might have been considered by many within the party as a "blow-in"; worthy of a ministerial position perhaps, but not a leader-in-waiting.

She was the favoured protégé of Mr Robinson, but for the top job his patronage alone wouldn't be enough.

To get the leadership of the DUP, she would have to appeal, at least in some measure, to the DUP's increasingly broad church, from traditional doctrinaire Paisleyites to a new element of pragmatic technocrats, some of them, like Foster, defectors from the UUP.

And she did it, in part, by telling a story about herself that struck a chord with a huge number of people in her party - and beyond.

It was a story that began when she was just eight years old.

Arlene Kelly, as she was then, lived with her family in an isolated farmstead outside Roslea in Co Fermanagh, just a few miles from the border. Her father John Kelly was a farmer and also an RUC constable.

For members of the security forces, living in an area like Roslea was extremely dangerous. Part-time UDR men and policemen were shot on their doorsteps, in their farmyards, at the wheels of their vehicles.

On January 4, 1979, John was locking up his cowshed when two IRA men opened fire on him from a nearby hedge with automatic rifles. The first bullet grazed his forehead, causing him to drop to the ground. The gunmen kept firing, but by now John was already crawling quickly toward the door of his house. Bullets riddled the walls behind him but - miraculously - the first round was the only one that touched him.

Scrambling inside, he set off security flares which had been installed on the roof, so that security forces in watchtowers and police stations in the surrounding countryside would know that he was under attack.

The bright flares made the two gunmen run off immediately, but John and his family didn't know that.

Inside the house, while bleeding profusely from the head, he ushered his family, including little Arlene, up to the main bedroom and told them to lie on the floor behind the bed in the darkness.

John hadn't had time to fetch his police weapon; he simply crouched by the door waiting to pounce on anybody who tried to walk through it. The family waited like that for 10 long minutes until police sirens arriving in the farmyard told them that they were safe.

Until that moment Mrs Foster says she knew nothing of sectarian strife or political violence.

She says that these things simply were not discussed in the house or, at least, not in front of her.

But that night everything changed. Soon afterwards the reason why men had tried to kill her father was explained to her.

Her political education had begun in a way that would, as she now admits, lead to bitterness in her heart as she grew older.

But there's a twist to this story. It involves one of the men whom she believes tried to kill her father that night.

She says that the family were told his identity by the police, based on intelligence, and that he was Seamus McElwaine.

He was a notorious IRA gunman who was later convicted of the murder of two UDR men in rural Fermanagh, but who was thought to be responsible for at least 10 more.

He later took part in the Maze escape, returned to Fermanagh, and began his IRA career again.

McElwaine was himself shot dead in April 1986 by the SAS as he was planting a roadside bomb designed to kill security forces. Republicans flocked to McElwaine's funeral.

The man who was chosen to give the graveside oration described McElwaine as a "freedom fighter" and "a saint", who had been "murdered by a British terrorist".

That man was Martin McGuinness. Mrs Foster told me that she continues to find this personal connection between her and the Deputy First Minister difficult even today.

But she says it won't stop her working with him because the work they have to do is too important.

Today, she is a very long way from the eight-year-old girl who lay quivering under the bed on that winter's night in 1979, waiting to hear the gunshots that never came.

She's now - against all the political odds - the most powerful woman in Northern Ireland.

Will she continue to surprise as she settles into that new role?

Spotlight, BBC One Northern Ireland, tonight, 10.45pm

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