Arlene Foster’s reputation as a safe pair of hands rocked by RHI scandal

Posted By: January 09, 2017

Arlene Foster is solicitor by profession and began her political career while 

studying law at Queen’s University Belfast where she joined the Unionist Association

David Young, Press Association. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, January 9, 2017

A POLITICAL inferno around a green boiler scheme is to remove Arlene Foster from her once seemingly unassailable job as First Minister.

Less than six weeks ago the DUP leader looked untouchable at the head of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration.

She took over from retiring Peter Robinson early last year in a seamless transition and defied the pundits to repeat the DUP’s best ever election result in May’s Assembly poll.

The 46-year-old former solicitor, who survived two horrific childhood experiences of IRA violence, carried vast moral authority among unionist voters to govern alongside Sinn Fein.

She and erstwhile foe Martin McGuinness pledged a new start for Stormont and in the months following the election a non-aggression pact in which they declined to criticize each other looked to have put the institutions on their most stable footing for years.

But an intense furor around her handling of a botched eco-energy scheme, which has left the executive facing a £490 million tab, has blown that asunder.

She may well return to her job on the other side of an election – but it is an election that she was not anticipating for another four years.

Mrs. Foster grew up near the border during the darkest days of the Troubles.

Born Arlene Kelly in 1970 near the village of Rosslea in rural Co Fermanagh, the early part of her childhood was described as idyllic.

But, by the age of eight, she gained first-hand experience of the bloody sectarian conflict which blighted Northern Ireland for decades when the IRA tried to murder her father, a farmer, and reserve police officer.

She has spoken of the trauma of seeing him come crawling into their isolated farmhouse on all fours with blood streaming down his face after being shot in the head.

He survived the attack, but the family was forced to flee their home, and the young Mrs. Foster had to change school.

As a teenager in 1988, Mrs. Foster survived another Republican attack when the IRA targeted the part-time UDR soldier who was driving her school bus. The Collegiate Grammar School student escaped relatively unscathed but a friend sitting close by suffered serious injuries.

A solicitor by profession, Mrs. Foster still lives in Fermanagh with her husband and three children – a daughter and two sons.

Her political career began while studying law at Queen’s University Belfast where she joined the Unionist Association – part of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Although she worked in private practice for more than a decade after graduating, she remained politically active, chairing the UUP’s youth wing and becoming an honorary member of the party’s ruling council.

Her political teeth were cut as a councilor on Fermanagh District Council where she represented the Enniskillen ward for five years.

But just weeks after being elected to the assembly in 2003 she, alongside Jeffrey Donaldson, now a DUP MP, decided to quit the UUP.

The pair had been part of a tight-knit group dubbed the “baby barristers” who opposed the Good Friday Agreement, the release of paramilitary prisoners and the direction in which their leader, David Trimble, was taking the party, sharing power with Sinn Fein.

After defecting to the DUP in January 2004, her rise through the ranks was rapid with high- profile roles including the environment and enterprise, trade, and investment portfolios.

As DETI minister from 2008 to 2015, she toured the world promoting Northern Ireland and was instrumental in bringing major events, including the MTV European Awards, the Irish Open golf tournament, and the Giro d’Italia cycling race, in the region.

Her journey to the top was based on a reputation as a safe ministerial pair of hands. It is as the perception that has been rocked in the fires of the RHI scandal.