Thursday 30 March 2017

Perception of Stormont's 'safe pair of hands' rocked by fires of RHI scandal

Arlene Foster carried vast moral authority among unionist voters to govern alongside Sinn Féin
Arlene Foster carried vast moral authority among unionist voters to govern alongside Sinn Féin

David Young

A political inferno around a green boiler scheme is to remove Arlene Foster from her once seemingly unassailable job as Stormont first minister.

Less than six weeks ago, the Democratic Unionist leader looked untouchable at the head of Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration.

She took over from retiring Peter Robinson early last year in a seamless transition, and defied the pundits to repeat the DUP's best ever election result in May's Assembly poll.

The 46-year-old former solicitor carried vast moral authority among unionist voters to govern alongside Sinn Féin.

She and erstwhile foe Martin McGuinness pledged a new start for Stormont and in the months following the election a non-aggression pact in which they declined to criticise each other looked to have put the institutions on their most stable footing for years.

But an intense furore around her handling of a botched eco-energy scheme, that has left the executive facing a £490m (€563m) tab, has blown that asunder. She may well return to her job on the other side of an election - but it is an election that she was not anticipating for another four years.

Mrs Foster grew up near the Irish Border during the darkest days of the Troubles.

Born Arlene Kelly in 1970, near the village of Rosslea in rural Co Fermanagh, the early part of her childhood was described as idyllic. But, by the age of eight she gained first-hand experience of the bloody sectarian conflict which blighted Northern Ireland for decades when the IRA tried to murder her father, a farmer and reserve police officer.

She has spoken of the trauma of seeing him come crawling into their isolated farmhouse on all fours with blood streaming down his face after being shot in the head. He survived but the family were forced to flee their home and she changed school.

In 1988, Mrs Foster survived another attack when the IRA targeted the part-time Ulster Defence Regiment soldier who was driving her school bus. The Collegiate Grammar School student escaped unscathed but a friend sitting close by suffered serious injuries.

Mrs Foster still lives in Fermanagh with her husband and three children - a daughter and two sons.

Her political career began while studying law at Queen's University in Belfast where she joined the Unionist Association - part of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Although she worked in private practice for more than a decade after graduating, she chaired the UUP's youth wing and became an honorary member of the party's ruling council.

Her political teeth were cut as a councillor on Fermanagh District Council where she represented the Enniskillen ward for five years. But just weeks after being elected to the Assembly in 2003 she, alongside Jeffrey Donaldson, now a DUP MP, decided to quit the UUP.

The pair had been part of a tight-knit group who opposed the Good Friday Agreement, the release of paramilitary prisoners and the direction in which their leader, David Trimble, was taking the party, sharing power with Sinn Féin.

After defecting to the DUP in January 2004, her rise was rapid with high-profile roles including the environment and enterprise, trade and investment portfolios. As DETI minister from 2008 to 2015, she toured the world promoting Northern Ireland and was instrumental in bringing major events, including the MTV European Awards, the Irish Open golf and the Giro d'Italia cycling race, to the region.

Her journey to the top was based on a reputation as a safe ministerial pair of hands. It is as perception that has been rocked in the fires of the RHI scandal.

Irish Independent

Promoted articles

Also in this section