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Arlene Foster: A pragmatic woman who can be the new face of an evolving NI


Arlene Foster inspects the flooding close to the Erneside Shopping Centre in Enniskillen

Arlene Foster inspects the flooding close to the Erneside Shopping Centre in Enniskillen

Arlene Foster inspects the flooding close to the Erneside Shopping Centre in Enniskillen

It is no overstatement to say that Arlene Foster's political career has been as astonishing as it has been meteoric. Not so long ago she would have ticked very few of the boxes thought to be a requirement to lead the DUP. She was a former member of the UUP, a woman and a member of the Church of Ireland, yet now, just 11 years after her defection, she is head of the biggest political party in Northern Ireland and, next month, will become First Minister.

What the DUP see in her is a woman who means business and who can do business. She is a self-made woman who came from a relatively humble background - she was the only one of her siblings to go to grammar school or university - but who has forged two demanding careers, as a solicitor and as a politician.

For some the prospect of following in the footsteps of two high profile politicians like the Rev Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson would be a daunting one, but there is little evidence that this Fermanagh woman is in the least bit phased by the challenges ahead.

One of her great strengths is her pragmatism. If politics is the art of the possible, then she will do what is required to make the possible a reality.

She also has very strong political credentials, founded on core unionist principles, something which will ease any resentment among the more conservative members of her party. They will remember that she left the UUP because of her misgivings about parts of the Good Friday Agreement, especially its lack of empathy with and help for victims of terrorism.

She can identify with victims given that her father was shot and wounded by the IRA and her school bus was also bombed by republicans. While such experiences can never be erased, she knows that she has to work with Sinn Fein, otherwise she would be leading a party into oblivion and there is no doubt that she will create a professional working relationship with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Her immediate task in the coming months is to prepare for the Assembly elections in May and to hold the record gains made by the party in the past. Her knowledge of what makes unionists - both DUP and UUP supporters - tick will make her a redoubtable opponent for her former party.

In the longer term she is determined to create a more prosperous Northern Ireland and economic matters will be at or near the top of her in-tray.

She is a politician that the business community has faith in given her previous ministerial roles in DETI and finance and she is also a very acceptable face of an evolving Northern Ireland.

She will need a sure touch on issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage, but then those are issues on which all the main parties have difficulty coming to terms with.

Much has been made of the fact that she is the first woman to lead a unionist party but it would be wrong to suggest that she is defined by her gender. She is first and foremost a consummate politician, with a keen analytical mind and a sure vision of where she is headed.

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