Monday 19 February 2018

Arlene Foster brings a true grit to the North's top job

Arlene Foster. Photo: PA
Arlene Foster. Photo: PA

Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster's meteoric rise to become DUP leader - and in three weeks' time First Minister - is truly groundbreaking.

Margaret Thatcher took a quarter of a century to rise to the top of the Tories and another four years after that to become prime minister.

Arlene Foster has secured the two top positions in local politics just a decade after joining the DUP. Her success shows that Northern Ireland isn't just moving with the times - but is capable of doing it at record speed.

Of course, there have been other women prominent in local politics in the North. Margaret Ritchie was the first female to lead a mainstream party. However, given the SDLP's declining fortunes, her leadership, unfortunately, had negligible impact.

Before that came the Women's Coalition but, for me, they offered no inspiration. They were little more than a Northern Ireland Office-sponsored outfit. Their reach never extended beyond a small section of the chattering classes.

Whereas the Women's Coalition complained endlessly about the argy-bargy of politics here, Arlene has unflinchingly embraced every battle with the boys in the Stormont chamber.

As the DUP's third leader, she combines the strengths of both her predecessors. Ian Paisley was big on personality and weak on policy detail. Peter Robinson was the polar opposite. Nobody doubted his intellect, but he was too technocratic.

Arlene is smart and warm. She knows how to work a room. And, like both Paisley and Robinson, she's as tough as nails - an absolute prerequisite for the job. She has never been one for the fluffy, softer issues that female politicians can too often gravitate towards. On constitutional and security issues, she can cut it with the best of her male opponents.

It's 20 years since I first met Arlene Kelly (as she was then), the chairperson of the Young Unionists, whom everybody said was going places. She was tipped to become the UUP's first female MP - something she had dreamed of since she was 17. Then, it all went devastatingly wrong.

She clashed with the UUP leadership over the Good Friday Agreement. As she said herself: "If I'd been interested only in career success, I'd have kept my mouth shut, but I happened to believe in principles."

I followed Arlene's career with interest as she joined the DUP in 2004. Despite Jeffrey Donaldson's defection dominating the headlines at the time, I reckoned she was the one to watch. Arlene's easy, confident, no-frills style resembles Angela Merkel's. And she works ferociously hard, too. No politician in parliament buildings puts in more hours. She chalks up a daily 160-mile round-trip commute from Fermanagh and regularly attends evening functions.

Officials say she takes home boxes of papers at night, arriving in the next morning fully on top of the issues. That she has done this while raising three young children makes her all the more formidable.

Nobody in the DUP, not even those on the party's fundamentalist wing, questions her ability or right to be First Minister. A few are concerned about her holding the position of DUP leader as well, but these are mild reservations, not resentment.

The hope among Robinson's DUP critics is that Arlene won't spend as much time as he did plotting in Stormont Castle, but will do what she does best - getting out and meeting people.

She is as yet untested in the roles of policy formulation and strategy. It also remains to be seen how, when the honeymoon period is over, she manages the party's big personalities.

The area where she will surely shine is reconnecting with DUP grassroots. Already, invitations for her to visit local branches are coming in thick and fast.

Irish Independent

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