The Democratic Unionist Party will this evening formally elect its first ever female leader who will also become First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Last month, current leader Peter Robinson announced his intention to step down. He concluded that it would not be fair on his party colleagues to lead them into elections when he was not prepared to serve as leader and First Minister for the full term at Stormont following the vote in May.
As the only candidate, the current Minister for Finance and Personnel, Arlene Foster, will be formally confirmed as the new DUP leader when the party’s most senior representatives at Stormont, Westminster and the European Parliament gather in Belfast tonight. She will be confirmed as First Minister on 11th January when the Northern Ireland Assembly.
First elected to Stormont in 2003 as a member of the Ulster Unionist Party as one of the members for Fermanagh and South Tyrone she was one of a group of party members on the right that caused difficulty for the then UUP leader David (now Lord) Trimble over his support for the Good Friday agreement.
In 2004, she, along with fellow UUP politicians Jeffrey Donaldson and Norah Beare defected to the DUP. By 2007 she had been appointed as Minister of the Environment going on to be appointed as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. In May of this year she was appointed Minister for Finance and Personnel following a reshuffle triggered by the resignation of the then Health Minister, Jim Wells.
In 2014, she called on Alliance Party MLA, Anna Lo, to apologies for her “deeply insulting language” after Lo described herself as “anti-colonial” and argued the partition of Ireland was “artificial”.
When she takes office as First Minister, it will not be the first time she has done so.
In 2010 she was appointed Acting First Minister following the decision by Peter Robinson to temporarily step aside to deal with controversy surrounding his wife’s finances and her reported affair.
More recently, in September this year, she was installed again as Acting First Minister, as a gate keeper following the decision by all DUP Ministers to leave the power sharing executive over ongoing activity by republican para-militaries and their links to Sinn Fein.
Speaking ahead of her election this evening, Ms Foster has pledged to make Northern Ireland “great again.”
Reflecting on her personal experience of the troubles, during which she witnessed IRA terrorism first-hand including seeing her father, an RUC officer, shot and wounded on the family farm, and a bomb damaging the school bus she was travelling on, she said:
“There can be few people in Northern Ireland who grew up during the Troubles who were not acutely aware of politics.
“My own personal experience has obviously shaped my views but my involvement in politics was not based solely as a reaction to the IRA terrorist campaign, but on the firm belief that the Union is good for Northern Ireland, a desire to strengthen that link and to make Northern Ireland the best it can be.
“I love this country. We only have to look at the sporting world to see the success this small place has on the global stage. I want to make Northern Ireland great again.”
In his assessment of Ms Foster’s installation, the Political Editor at the Belfast Telegraph, Liam Clarke, has noted that her biggest challenge “will be to keep Sinn Fein onside while keeping her own party united.” As he notes:
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“Barring an electoral landslide, Sinn Fein and the DUP are the only two parties capable of giving Northern Ireland a stable, cross-community administration. Falling out in a major way makes them both losers if it spells the end of Stormont.
“Trust fell when Robinson promised Sinn Fein a peace and reconciliation centre at the Maze, but pulled out when he found the DUP divided. Ms Foster needs to be careful not to promise what she can’t deliver, and to always deliver what she does promise.”