Some photo opps will be more closely scrutinized than others

Posted By: April 05, 2017

Arlene Foster’s reputation as a safe pair of hands was built on seven outwardly smooth years as Stormont enterprise minister. However, the RHI revelations have seen her legacy being re-examined. Business editor Gary McDonald reports

Gary McDonald. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, April 5, 2017

BUSINESSES in The North generally embraced Arlene Foster during her seven years at the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Investment (Deti), because she always seemed to say the right thing.

Whether it was a small manufacturer or fledgling IT start-up announcing a handful of jobs, or a behemoth bringing in hundreds of new posts, the Minister would consistently talk up the skills base, praise the region’s high-calibre of graduates, big-up our competitiveness, always mention in glowing terms the support from Invest NI, and often also extol the virtues of the telecommunications and broadband infrastructure.

Her words mostly seemed sincere and ticked every box and, while her often-samey speeches could almost have been plucked off the shelf at Netherleigh, she had the ability to mold them specifically for Widgets Inc or Joe Bloggs & Sons.

Investment announcements were undoubtedly Mrs. Foster’s stock-in-trade and her ministerial zenith. On a good week, she would chalk up half a dozen (and usually there was something in Fermanagh on a Friday).

And if the mainstream media didn’t always get there, then no worries, for there would be a picture file in the in-box often before the Ministerial car was even off site.

There were so many publicity shots during her stint in Deti from 2008 to 2015 that a webpage – ‘Arlene Foster holding things’ – began documenting the various props she was pictured with.

But her term of office was almost like a revolving door of jobs because for every new investment and additional post created; there seemed to be a hemorrhaging of staff at the likes of Gallaher or Michelin, Caterpillar or Bombardier.

She often had to face up and explain away a crushing economic hammer blow like the loss of 800 jobs at Gallaher, a firm which contributed £60 million a year to the Ballymena and the wider economy through annual salaries while also providing spin-offs for 200 other local businesses.

These weren’t one of those countless smiley photo opportunities but required moderation and gravitas and calm reassurance at a time when workers and their families were clearly hurting. Whether her platitudes eased their pain is debatable. And while it is true that companies and business organizations clearly did take Arlene to their hearts while at Deti, the RHI scandal has now prompted a full re-examination of her legacy.

Arlene Foster’s seven years heading up the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Investment (Deti) from 2008 were characterized initially by economic recession not of her own making, followed by flat-lining and modest growth, and ultimately with a move to a big office but with a shadow cast over all the work she did.