Belfast Telegraph

DUP's Arlene Foster: one woman who was born to be a leader

By Alex Kane

In a profile of Arlene Foster for the Belfast Telegraph in May - after she was appointed Finance Minister - I asked her if she was surprised by how well she, Simon Hamilton, Jonathan Bell and others had done in the DUP.

"No, I'm not surprised at all. The DUP promotes on merit," she replied. Interestingly, when I asked if she would have been similarly elevated had she stayed in the UUP she gave a one word answer - no.

In response to that profile, one of the UUP's most senior and influential figures told me: "Arlene was the single biggest loss to the party in that period between 1998 and 2007. We shouldn't have let her go. At some point she will lead the DUP and take votes from us again."

Foster was an almost stereotypical UUP member - rural, Anglican, female and Fermanagh-based. She had been recruited into the Queen's Unionist Association by Peter Weir around 1990 and was chairwoman from 1992 to 1993.

After university she remained active through branch membership and the Ulster Young Unionist Council and by 1996 - still in her mid-20s and a member of the 'baby barristers' - was elected an honorary secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council, the governing body of the UUP.

It was clear that she was recognised as a high flier: some even talked of her as a possible leader "in two or three decades".

But her disagreement with the party over the Good Friday Agreement and the increasingly bitter exchanges between the pro and anti camps made life very difficult for her.

"It was actually very, very hard for us to say no to the Belfast Agreement as up to then we had all been very strong members of the UUP," she has said.

And even though she had been elected to the Assembly in November 2003 on a UUP ticket, it didn't come as a particular surprise when she resigned her membership and joined the DUP in early 2004.

"It 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. The DUP has evolved and grown over the years and, as Dr Paisley used to say, the DUP is a political party, not a church. I found a vibrancy in the DUP that didn't exist in the UUP and a real, genuine support and interest for the individual."

Next week, Arlene Foster will become the DUP's third leader and its first female one. Robinson and Paisley were there from day one in 1971, so her promotion represents a real change for the party. She is liked and respected across the DUP: and even though there are some concerns about an 'outsider' and 'relative newcomer' taking the reins of power, there is no indication of cabals preparing to challenge or undermine her. Above and beyond all else the DUP wants to remain unionist top dog. The key fixers and power brokers are all behind her, so, barring an unlikely election meltdown next May, she will be her own boss.

She represents a potential electoral problem for the UUP and TUV - because she is not Peter Robinson. She appeals to a section of the UUP's grassroots, particularly west of the Bann, who may find the DUP a more attractive option under her leadership.

She is ferocious in debate and has an intimate understanding of how the DUP and UUP think. If she gets the pitch right she could ensure that any Nesbitt/Allister progress is kept to the bare minimum.

Given the difficult year it has had - albeit mostly focused on Robinson - Arlene Foster's election as leader may turn out to be the very best thing to have happened to the DUP since the 2011 Assembly election.

Belfast Telegraph


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