How Arlene Foster went from untouchable to expendable

A 1988 interview with Foster after her school bus was bombed hints at her political future

In 1988, a 17-year-old Arlene Foster – then Arlene Kelly – was interviewed alongside a Catholic teenager after the IRA bombed their school bus in Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh.

She explains how Protestant and Catholic pupils sit apart on the bus. When asked if they will sit together in the future, her answer gave a clue to the politician she was to become.

"Well I think it's up to the whole bus to change it. In fact it's up to the whole of the young people of Northern Ireland to change what is happening, to turn against the men of violence."

The attack, and an IRA attempt years earlier to kill her father, an RUC reservist, would confirm Foster’s passionate commitment to the union and influence her entire career.

She joined the Ulster Unionist Party while a law student at Queen's University Belfast, and went on to become chairwoman of the Young Unionists.

She was elected to the Assembly in 2003 as a representative of her home constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone, but defected to the DUP the following year because of her opposition to the Belfast Agreement.

Seen as a rising star within the party, she was appointed to ministerial office in 2007, and as minister for enterprise from 2008 until 2015 she oversaw the introduction of the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) – or “cash for ash” – scheme, under which participants received £1.60 back for every £1 they spent.

The ensuing scandal led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2017 and a three-year hiatus until its restoration in early 2020, two months before the inquiry into RHI, which was sufficiently critical of ministers, special advisers and officials for Foster to apologise again for “my failings” in the implementation of the scheme.

‘Untold harm’

In her resignation statement on Wednesday, Foster described it as a “difficult period”; as to other low points, she referenced the “untold harm” caused to public services during three years without devolution, and the protocol “being foisted upon Northern Ireland against the will of unionists, [which] has served to destabilise Northern Ireland in more recent times”.

As First Minister and DUP leader since 2015, her place in the history books is assured as the first woman to hold both posts.

For a time it seemed to her party colleagues that she could do no wrong. By the end of 2016 the DUP had increased its number of MLAs to 38 – 10 more than its current contingent of 28 – and was the toast of the party, dancing along with colleagues to an impromptu rendition of “Arlene’s on Fire” at that year’s DUP conference.

Yet the heat of the RHI scandal was already being felt at Stormont; the collapse of the Assembly and a disastrous election result for the DUP, following a campaign chiefly remembered for a comment by Foster comparing Sinn Féin to a crocodile, tarnished that apparent brilliance.

She has also faced significant challenges, not least the Covid-19 pandemic. The mishandling of Brexit under her watch – squandering the opportunity to avoid an Irish Sea border and then believing, against all evidence, the promises of Boris Johnson – resulted in the worst possible Brexit for unionism, one that puts a barrier between it and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Party tensions

Much of the recent anger over this is directed towards the DUP, which many in the grassroots feel is out of touch, and there were concerns among DUP elected representatives that unless something was done it could damage their chances at the ballot box in next year’s Assembly elections.

This has built on growing tensions within the party between the traditional elements and those who are viewed as more progressive, which were thrown into sharp relief by a LucidTalk poll earlier this year that showed an increase in support for the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and Alliance – to the right and left, respectively, the DUP's greatest electoral threats.

Foster has increasingly been viewed as too weak, as evidenced by her repeated failure to deal with party colleagues who stepped out of line. Her more liberal stance on more recent issues – such as her abstention on an Assembly vote calling for a ban on gay conversion therapy when most of her party voted against – was viewed by some in the party as the last straw.

The direction her party will take in the future remains to be seen; what was clear was that Arlene Foster did not want to go. More than 30 years on from the bombing of her school bus, she spoke in her resignation statement of the need for all to change.

“The future of unionism and Northern Ireland will not be found in division, it will only be found in sharing this place we are all privileged to call home.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

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