Arlene Foster: Effective politician, but with a fierce temper

The prospective First Minister of Northern Ireland evokes a divided response

Years ago, at a Fermanagh Ulster Unionist party function, a journalist from the Impartial Reporter asked a young Arlene Foster about her political ambitions. "Well I'm not here to make the tea," she replied.

There are many in that party who must ardently wish they'd chained her to the urn there and then. On Saturday, at the Democratic Unionist Party's annual conference, her speech received a prolonged standing ovation and she moved with supreme and smiling confidence through the throng of delegates, MLAs and Ministers, apparently on the verge of being appointed as the First Minister for Northern Ireland.

She lives near the stately home of old Lord Brookeborough, though her house is a comfortable bungalow with chickens out the back. The days when a unionist leader could boast of not having a Catholic about the place are long gone, but local nationalists very recently got a chill and insulting whiff of the old attitude.

Foster, then Minister for Finance, said on BBC NI that it was important for her to remain in office when the other DUP executive members had resigned, in order to prevent "renegades" and "rogues" from the SDLP and Sinn Féin doing harm to the unionist community. While she was getting presidential treatment from her party colleagues at the La Mon, she was being mercilessly lampooned on BBC Radio Ulster's The Blame Game as the guard dog left in Stormont "to stop the Fenians getting at the money".


She is very much the local politician. “She’ll fight for her side of the house when it comes to bringing in local business and jobs,” says one Fermanagh community activist. “At the end of the day, she’s a staunch Protestant and even a bit of a bigot,” says a local Protestant of a more liberal bent.

Sinn Féin has dubbed her “the Minister for Call Centres”. Another community activist says she works “extremely hard” for all who seek her help. “My jaw has hit the floor at some of the people I’ve seen in her constituency office,” he says, “including some super- Catholics in to talk about some of the religious and social issues on which they’d be pretty close.”


All agree she gets things done for people. Her constituency work is regarded as exemplary. Her office is “ultra-efficient”, “streets ahead” of others from any party. Lobbyists on issues she supports are given access to the heart of government.

Born Arlene Kelly along the Border in rural east Fermanagh, she has reasons to be bitter. A country childhood she recalls as idyllic was brutally interrupted when her father, a part-time policeman and farmer was shot and injured by the IRA. The Kellys had to move to the local town of Lisnaskea, and like many other security force families, they lived on high alert. She was on a school bus that was blown up by the IRA in a failed attempt to kill the UDR driver.

Now a Sinn Féin MLA, Seán Lynch was then a leading local IRA man. They are said to be “on speaking terms” and to have a “business-like” relationship. Foster has friends who were bereaved in the Enniskillen bomb and shares the attitude of “innocent victims” campaigners, but they are critical of her party’s willingness to work with Sinn Féin.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is said to rate Foster and regard her as one of the most effective Ministers. Unlike Nigel Dodds, she is not from a hard core Free Presbyterian DUP background, and some traditionalists are still wary of her. Some observers believe she would welcome having Dodds as party leader to her First Minister because he would bring that element to the joint leadership. She's Church of Ireland.

Orange Hall

Her husband, Brian, a former policeman, plays rugby, and she is said to be more at home in the rugby club than the Orange Hall, though she goes to the field on the 12th. As a young solicitor she worked in the offices of the then president of the UUP. That party has never forgiven her for defecting to the Paisleyites just weeks after winning a UUP seat in the turbulent period of the Good Friday Agreement.

Foster had ambitions to go to Westminster, but was never going to be the joint unionist candidate to win the seat back from Sinn Féin. "There are plenty of unionists who would have voted for Michelle Gildernew sooner than Arlene," said a local analyst.

She is fortunate that unlike Dodds, no nickname from her schooldays has followed her – in Fermanagh Dodds is still known to some as Greaser. She has, however, been called “the Bull” by some. “Arlene has a temper, a fierce temper,” says one MLA. “It is a spasm of rage she can’t control. She will have to see to that if she is to be a good First Minister.”

She is a mistress of the “we will take no lectures from . . .” school of put-down, cannot abide criticism and has been savage in her contempt for journalists who have crossed her. However, she came to the launch of local reporter Rodney Edward’s book and posed for photos with a baby.

She reveres Margaret Thatcher, aspires to own Louboutin heels. Several female politicians, unionist and republican, describe her as "a man's woman" who would flirt with Martin McGuinness sooner than offer solidarity to other women in the heavily male-dominated Assembly.

Others say she mentors young women through her leadership role in the Girl Guides and her support for the girls school she attended. She has a circle of loyal female friends and is said to love to banter and socialise.

She has been known to sing at weddings. She is an EastEnders fan. "You'd hear her big laugh before you see her," says an admirer. "She's very personable and chatty." She is devoted to her three young children, Sarah, George and Ben. She crossed swords with her husband's UUP uncle, the late Sam Foster, after he implied she should attend more to the domestic. She drives home at all hours and the ministerial car has been known to stop at the local chip shop. This is not a woman to waste time making the tea.

Susan McKay

Susan McKay, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a journalist and author. Her books include Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground