Arlene Foster: The new face of the Democratic Unionist Party

Strong on detail, her training as a solicitor and personal warmth have been seen in policy-making and negotiation

 

Arlene Foster, who is expected to become the Democratic Unionist Party leader today, represents an important transition in unionist politics as a new generation begins to lead Northern Ireland. She will be the first woman to head her party and to become First Minister in the power-sharing executive, the latter on January 11th.

Her Anglican, Fermanagh and former Ulster Unionist background brings welcome pluralism to direct a party famed for its bigoted fundamentalist Presbyterianism under former leader Rev Ian Paisley. His successor, the outgoing Peter Robinson, championed her as the best person to continue his tough, strategic but pragmatic approach to devolution and power-sharing.

Ms Foster’s main tasks now are to consolidate the executive after the recent Fresh Start agreement and prepare her party for the Assembly elections in May. She has been a capable minister for environment, enterprise, trade and investment and most recently finance in the executive since 2007. Strong on detail, her training as a solicitor and personal warmth have been seen in policy-making and negotiation.

Her family background and constituency work in Fermanagh gives her a good knowledge of both communities there, coloured by early IRA attempts on her father’s life as a policemen and an attack on her school bus. Shifting in 2003 to the DUP after a decade in the UUP she quickly rose through its ranks. She has a broader and more inclusive vision of its future than many of its more long-standing members, including her main rivals Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson who opted not to contest the leadership.

That vision will be tested in the forthcoming assembly elections. She faces competition from a UUP anxious to retrieve support after its weak performance in 2011. Sinn Féin aspires to become the largest party in the assembly and thus to bid for the First Ministership. The SDLP under its new young leader Colum Eastwood is also keen to improve its performance.

The DUP may lose some seats but can compensate by broadening its appeal on a more pragmatic and effective programme which fully accepts devolution. Northern Ireland’s changing demographics between Catholics and Protestants, growing numbers of younger and less sectarian voters and the parties’ need to tailor policies more to available resources can make these elections more engaged and fluid than the last ones.

She will also need to concentrate on where Northern Ireland stands in its wider Irish, UK and EU settings. These relationships would be severely disrupted by the shocks flowing from a UK decision to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum. Ms Foster should encourage informed debate and policy-making in the North to counter that danger, rather than reacting passively and belatedly to the British campaign.

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