Tuesday 23 January 2018

Interview: Arlene Foster - The new DUP leader recalls the day the IRA shot her father and how it shaped her politics

Peter Robinson watches as Finance Minister Arlene Foster reacts after she was elected as leader of the DUP. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Peter Robinson watches as Finance Minister Arlene Foster reacts after she was elected as leader of the DUP. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Arlene Foster's father, John Kelly. Photo: Press Eye

Liam Clarke

Arlene Foster spent the longest seven minutes of her life hiding in the bedroom of her Fermanagh home as distress flares were fired into the air to alert police to an IRA attack on her father.

"I was eight when my father, John Kelly, was shot - I hadn't thought of politics at that stage," the newly-crowned DUP leader explained.

Mr Kelly, a policeman, survived the shooting in 1979.

But for a young Foster, it was a glimpse of the Troubles raging outside their otherwise idyllic childhood existence in rural Fermanagh.

"It was a very simple, happy, rural life," she said. "Hay fields and the sort of thing you would expect with a country girl.

"After he was shot, we had to move." It meant giving up their small farm, which her father ran as a sideline. Foster still remembers the events with terrifying clarity.


"I was in the kitchen and my mother was sitting on the edge of the table and she just froze when the gunshots went off," she recalled.

"I didn't know what they were until my father came in on all fours crawling, with blood coming from his head.

"The terrorists thought he was on police duty and he would be coming home at 12 o'clock, but then they realised he was in the house," she explained.

"So when he went out to close the animals in for the night about 9.30pm or so, they opened up. That meant they were further away than they would have been if he had come in the car."

She recalls her father describing how he "danced about" to try and avoid the gunfire until they hit him in the head. Despite his ordeal, he lived for another 32 years.

"One of the most difficult things for my father was the feeling that people living nearby had set him up," she said. "We lived in a nationalist area. We had no difficulties. People would have left their bikes in our yard to get the bus at the crossroads, and that is one of the most insidious things that the Troubles did to communities like Fermanagh.

"Everyone was wondering: 'Would that person set me up?'. That even happened among people who were normally good friends and acquaintances."

That incident and a later bus bombing have helped shape her outlook. She said: "It is part of who I am and can't be denied. It informed my teenage years, it informed my political decisions, but at the same time, I don't think we should let the past define what we do in the future.

The forced move might have been the making of her.In Lisnaskea, she joined the Girl Guides, something she thinks built her confidence and leadership skills.

"The second thing was Collegiate Grammar School in Enniskillen. I was the only one of my siblings who went to grammar school and I was the only one of my family to go to university," she explained.

The IRA struck again when she was 16 and her school bus was bombed in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the driver, a part-time UDR soldier.

"I was actually sitting beside a friend's sister and I was in the inside and she was in the aisle. She was very badly injured," Foster said.

"You then had to deal with the fact that this had happened and it could have been me, because we used to fight about who sat next to the window."

She left the UUP in 2004, very shortly after being elected an MLA, and that created bitterness, particularly as she was protesting against the Good Friday Agreement. It had been signed in 1998, five years before she was elected.

"I wasn't anti any agreement; I was anti the Agreement in terms of prisoner releases, the non-accountability of ministers and the emasculation of the RUC," she insisted.

"There was no recognition of victims' issues in the Belfast Agreement. There were a range of issues that made me vote against the Agreement."

Comparisons today with Peter Robinson are treated as a compliment. "He has built this party in a very strategic way and I look forward to building on that success."

She is fairly conservative on the "moral issues" of abortion and same-sex marriage, though she does feel that new abortion guidelines should be introduced to deal with the issues of fatal foetal abnormality.

She has also said that the decision on whether to lift the ban on gay blood donations should be based on scientific evidence. A decision on this will come shortly, she believes.

Foster had been hurt by past suggestions that she was letting down her father's memory by sitting in government with Sinn Féin.

"We should try to build a Northern Ireland that young people want to make their home in."

Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley got on remarkably well in their time together. When Mr Robinson took over, however, the relationship was somewhat cooler. Foster insists she will take a pragmatic approach.

"I have no personal relationship with anyone in Sinn Féin but I have a working relationship," she explained.

"If there is an issue, I will contact them and have a conversation about that particular issue. It would be a ludicrous situation to be in Government and not speak to people."

She is tight-lipped about political appointments.

"I think what you will see, in terms of my leadership, what I hope people will say, is there is a party that means business in terms of promoting and defending the Union," she said.

Irish Independent

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