Foster’s C of I background will not matter, say DUP members

New head of party ‘will be judged on how she performs as First Minister and as leader’

 Arlene Foster, who will be formally  elected Northern Ireland First Minister today. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Arlene Foster, who will be formally elected Northern Ireland First Minister today. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

A leading DUP politician and a senior Free Presbyterian Minister have expressed confidence that Arlene Foster, who is to be elected Northern Ireland First Minister today, will gain the support of both the evangelical and less fundamentally religious wings of her party.

Since Ms Foster quit the Ulster Unionist Party in 2004 to join the DUP much comment has been made about the fact that she is a Church of Ireland member.

Former finance Minister and East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson and Free Presbyterian Minister David McIlveen however said that her religious background would not be an issue.

“I think she will be judged on how she performs as First Minister and as leader rather than on being a woman or a Church of Ireland member or a relative newcomer to the party,” said Mr Wilson.

The DUP which was founded in 1971 by the then Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, the Rev Ian Paisley, has long been associated with born-again Protestantism.

Peter Robinson, while not a member of the Free Presbyterian Church is also from an evangelical background. For more than a decade now, however, he has been widening the scope of the party, bringing in and promoting people such as Ms Foster, East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson and health Minister Simon Hamilton who would be viewed as more politically and religiously moderate than some of the evangelical members of the party.

Two wings

Democratic Unionist Party

Senior party members however acknowledge that there are two wings to the party. Mr Robinson, who steps down as First Minister shortly after noon today, throughout his leadership and when he was Dr Paisley’s deputy sought to maintain a cordial working balance between these two strands.

A number of his key advisers are former Ulster Unionist Party members while Ms Foster and Mr Hamilton, who are also ex-UUP, have prospered in the party, both holding senior ministries. Equally however he has been careful to keep the born-again side satisfied with evangelical MLAs such as Mervyn Storey, Nelson McCausland, Jim Wells and Edwin Poots holding or having held ministries.

Sammy Wilson said that Ms Foster’s background will not be a problem for the party. “I don’t think religion will be an issue at all. Her leadership will be defined by whether or not she abides by the principles and the policies of the party,” he said.

Moral issues such as abortion and same sex marriage would always be on the political agenda but he believed she “should not get obsessed” with them.

Disagreement

“I think she will still maintain the line on those issues. It will annoy some people, it will please some people. Some people will say while we might not agree with you, you have the right attitude to business, towards the economy, on education – and that is why we are going to vote for you,” added Mr Wilson

On the DUP’s anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriages stances he added, “Maybe as a woman she will be able to present the case in a more palatable way than it has been presented in the past. If there are to be any changes it will probably be more in terms of language than in policy.”

Mr Wilson said that Ms Foster’s concentration should be on making Stormont work and most particularly on returning the DUP as the largest political party after the May elections.

Retired Presbyterian Minister, Rev David McIlveen, predicted that Ms Foster would maintain party policy on abortion and same-sex marriage but as a woman she could argue her position perhaps more compassionately than some of her male colleagues.

He acknowledged the influence of the Free Presbyterian Church within the DUP but added, “The Free Presbyterian Church numerically probably would be maximum 12,000 people. The vote for the DUP is very often well over 100,000 so if the DUP was depending on the Free Presbyterian votes even as a bloc they would not achieve a great deal.”