Arlene Isabel Foster PC (née Kelly; born 17 July 1970) is a Northern Irish politician serving as First Minister of Northern Ireland since January 2020, and previously from 2016 to 2017. She has served as Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) since 2015 and Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone since 2003.
Foster in 2015
|First Minister of Northern Ireland|
|Assumed office |
11 January 2020
Serving with Michelle O'Neill
11 January 2016 – 9 January 2017*
Serving with Martin McGuinness
|Preceded by||Peter Robinson|
|Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party|
|Assumed office |
17 December 2015
|Preceded by||Peter Robinson|
|Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment|
9 June 2008 – 11 May 2015
|First Minister||Peter Robinson|
|Deputy First Minister||Martin McGuinness|
John O'Dowd (Acting)
|Preceded by||Nigel Dodds|
|Succeeded by||Jonathan Bell|
|Minister for the Environment|
8 May 2007 – 9 June 2008
|First Minister||Ian Paisley|
|Deputy First Minister||Martin McGuinness|
|Preceded by||Dermot Nesbitt|
|Succeeded by||Sammy Wilson|
|Member of the Legislative Assembly for Fermanagh and South Tyrone|
|Assumed office |
26 November 2003
|Preceded by||Joan Carson|
|Minister for Finance and Personnel|
11 May 2015 – 12 January 2016
|First Minister||Peter Robinson|
|Deputy First Minister||Martin McGuinness|
|Preceded by||Simon Hamilton|
|Succeeded by||Mervyn Storey|
Arlene Isabel Kelly
17 July 1970
Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland
|Political party||Ulster Unionist (Before 2003)|
Democratic Unionist (2004–present)
|Alma mater||Queen's University Belfast|
|*Foster served as Acting First Minister from 11 January 2010 – 3 February 2010 and 10 September 2015 – 20 October 2015 while Robinson was on leave.|
Foster served in the Northern Ireland Executive as Minister of the Environment from 2007 until 2008, Minister for Enterprise and Investment from 2008 until 2015 and Minister for Finance and Personnel from 2015 until 2016. In January 2016, Foster became First Minister of Northern Ireland and shared power with Martin McGuinness.
McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister in January 2017 amid the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, which involved a green energy scheme that Foster set up during her time as Minister for Enterprise and Investment. The scheme was set to cost the taxpayer £490 million and there were allegations of corruption surrounding it. McGuinness asked Foster to step aside as First Minister while her involvement in the scheme was investigated, but she refused to step aside or resign and said that the voices calling for her resignation were those of "misogynists and male chauvinists". Under the terms of the Northern Ireland power-sharing agreement known as the Good Friday Agreement, the First and deputy First Ministers are equal and, therefore, Foster could not remain in her post as First Minister. McGuinness's resignation caused a 2017 snap assembly election to be held, in which the DUP lost 10 seats. In January 2020 she became First minister of Northern Ireland again after the cabinet was reinstated.
Foster was born in Enniskillen and was raised in the townland of Dernawilt, County Fermanagh, between Lisnaskea and Roslea. She is a member of the Church of Ireland. Her experience with the Troubles began early in her life when a night-time attempt was made to kill her father, a Royal Ulster Constabulary reservist, who was shot and severely injured at their family farm; the family was forced to leave the Roslea area.
As a teenager, Foster was on a school bus that was bombed by the IRA, the vehicle targeted because its driver was a soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment. A girl sitting near her was seriously injured. She was a pupil at Enniskillen Collegiate Grammar School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh from 1982 to 1989, and attended Queen's University, Belfast where she graduated with an LL.B. degree. Her political career began at Queen's University after she joined the Queen's Unionist Association, part of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
She served as the association's chairman from 1992 to 1993. After leaving Queen's University she remained active in the UUP, chairing its youth wing, the Ulster Young Unionist Council, in 1995. In 1996, she became an Honorary Secretary of the UUP's ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council, a position which she held until her resignation from the UUP on 18 December 2003. She was a Councillor on Fermanagh District Council representing Enniskillen from 2005 to 2010.
She was elected as an Ulster Unionist in the 2003 Assembly elections. While a member of the UUP, she was part of a "rightwing cabal within the UUP known as the 'baby barristers'." They actively opposed party leader David Trimble, and were a "thorn in [his] side" after he supported the Belfast Agreement.
In 2004, Foster resigned from the UUP and joined the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), together with fellow Assembly members Jeffrey Donaldson and Norah Beare. She was selected as the DUP's candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the 2005 UK general election, where she gained 28.8% of the vote.
Negotiations took place between the local branches of the DUP and UUP with the aim of finding an agreed unionist candidate. The negotiations broke down with neither party willing to accept the electoral dominance of the other; the UUP claiming Foster's defection to the DUP disguised the reality of the UUP's electoral strength, while the DUP pointed to the change in the unionist political landscape following the 2003 Assembly election and the 2004 European Parliament election. The UUP candidate was Tom Elliott. Foster finished second in the 2005 general election with 14,056 votes.
On 11 January 2010, she assumed the duties of the First Minister of Northern Ireland, as Peter Robinson stepped aside for a planned period of up to six weeks. Foster worked alongside the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Robinson returned earlier than planned, on 3 February 2010.
Minister for the Environment
In September 2007, a privately financed proposal for a new Giant's Causeway centre was given preliminary approval by Foster in her role as Northern Ireland Environment Minister. Immediately afterwards, the public money that had been allocated to the causeway development was frozen. The proposal resulted in a public row about the relationship between the private developer Seymour Sweeney and the DUP; Sweeney was a member of the DUP, although both he and the DUP denied that he had ever donated financially to the party.
On 29 January 2008, Foster announced that she had decided against Sweeney's proposal for a £21 million visitors' centre on a protected greenfield site, reversing her earlier position of "being minded" to approve it. Although the public funds for a causeway scheme remained frozen, it seemed highly likely that the publicly funded plan for the causeway would go ahead with the support of deputy DUP leader Nigel Dodds.
Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment
A major concession for Northern Ireland was the reduction to zero of Air Passenger Duty on long-haul flights from the province. In the devolution settlement such burdens were to be born by the Assembly government. But negotiations proved how DUP could sell their support to Whitehall. In 2011, she had written to the Organised Crime Task Force about the need to bring fuel licensing within the remit of the Petrol licensing Consolidation (NI) Act 1929, demonstrating the relevance of cross-border law enforcement jurisdiction in helping to reduce frauds.
As the minister responsible for energy policy in June 2012, Foster criticised the Co-operative Group over the showing of a documentary opposing fracking, saying: "I find your claim that you take 'ethics to the next level' hard to reconcile with your demonstrable support for a film which presents a wholly one-sided and partial approach to the debate about hydraulic fracturing."
In March 2014, Foster called for an apology for what she described as "deeply insulting" language" in a comment made by fellow MLA Anna Lo of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. Lo had described herself as "anti-colonial" and said the partition of Ireland was "artificial". Foster herself was challenged in a blog by Irish writer Jude Collins over the fact that she had chosen to speak out so robustly on the matter after not commenting about remarks made the previous day by another Unionist politician, Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson. The former UVF member who was responsible for two sectarian murders during The Troubles stated that he had "no regrets in terms of my past because I believe that I contributed to preventing a united Ireland." Hutchinson also stated: "There is no room for violence in this society."[better source needed]
On 11 January 2020 she was re-elected First Minister following the first meeting of the Assembly after restoration of devolution.
First Minister of Northern Ireland
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In January 2016, as she was poised to become First Minister, Foster stated that she would not be travelling to Dublin for the official centenary celebrations of the 1916 uprising against British rule, describing the rising as "an attack on democracy".
Arlene Foster was First Minister of Northern Ireland from January 2016 to January 2017. She set the agenda during her maiden speech as First Minister as one of "hope for all the community". Throughout Foster's period in office, a return to conservative social issues compounded by strong support for the government in Westminster made her a scourge of her left-wing critics. In May 2018, she announced she would be leading an Orange Order march in Fife, Scotland. As a committed member of the Order, this was a reason behind the original defection from the UUP ten years ago. As First Minister, Foster was emphatic in support for Brexit with a soft border along the republic; yet leaving the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.
The assembly was suspended following disagreements between the parties, particularly over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. While the Government talked about restoring the Executive as a "top priority" the constitutional impasse has made it impossible. In May 2018, the High Court ruled that the civil service could not grant planning permission for an incinerator in Mallusk.
In 2018, Foster addressed a PinkNews reception in Belfast, becoming the first DUP leader to attend an LGBT event. Foster stated that her opposition to same-sex marriage, she valued the contribution of the LGBT community in Northern Ireland and requested that differing views be respected.
Committed to a business case, Foster was responsible for a super-fast broadband connection designed to enhance communications with international offerings. Her success at liaison with ministers, such as Theresa Villiers MP demonstrated administrative competence. The case of HMS Caroline also bore witness how feminine leadership agenda could draw praise from her colleagues in the House, and attract business to Belfast, while galvanising an heroic Unionist vision for Northern Ireland. Regional Aid proved a vital part of the budget within the devolved framework. The reduction of sales and purchase taxes, such as Air Passenger Duty was typically part of her wider experience of stimulating business at DETI. Fighting the cause of private enterprise has been an important issue for Foster: mobile phone companies and saving Bombardier jobs brought investment of £500 million, while public sector employment has declined.
Renewable Heat Incentive scandal
In December 2016, Foster faced criticism and controversy after a whistleblower revealed that the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme overspent by £400m, a failure which has been nicknamed the Cash for Ash scandal. The scheme was originally set up by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI, now Department for the Economy) when she was Minister of the department and the scheme offered incentives to businesses if they installed renewable heating systems, such as burning wooden pellets.
She faced strong criticism after it was claimed that she personally campaigned to keep the scheme open, even when senior civil servants warned of the overspend and the Minister responsible, Jonathan Bell, planned on closing it. It remained open for an extra two weeks before it was finally closed. It was also revealed that the Northern Ireland budget would lose £400m over the next 20 years as a result of the failure of the scheme. An independent audit investigated 300 sites and found there were issues at half of them, including 14 cases where there were suspicions of 'serious fraud'.
When senior civil servants suggested the closure of the scheme in September 2015, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (now the Executive Office) pressured the department to keep the scheme open, which is when there was a spike in applications. There were calls for Foster to resign as First Minister after the scandal broke.
On 9 January 2017, McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister. Under the terms of the power-sharing agreement that created what is now the Executive Office, his resignation has also resulted in Foster being removed from office, until Sinn Féin nominates a new deputy First Minister; the party stated that it will not replace McGuinness. No nomination was made before 16 January, resulting in the collapse of the Executive. James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, assumed the powers of the Executive and called for a snap election scheduled for 2 March.
In a statement posted to Facebook, Foster said that she was "disappointed" with McGuinness' decision and condemned it as "not principled": "At a time when we are dealing with Brexit, needing to create more jobs and investing in our health and education system, Northern Ireland needs stability. But because of Sinn Féin's selfish reactions, we now have instability, and I very much regret that." She expressed concern over the possibility of another election less than a year after the previous one, and said "this is not an election of our making", but that "the DUP will always defend unionism and stand up for what is best for Northern Ireland."
Northern Ireland political deadlock
Since McGuinness' resignation, Northern Ireland was in a continuous state of political deadlock until January 2020. One of the key issues was the Irish Language Act, which Sinn Féin insist on and Foster has said that her party will never agree to. With regard to the proposed act, she said "If you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back for more." This remark was widely cited during the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election even though Foster later apologised for it. On 11 January 2020, the Executive was re-formed with Arlene Foster as First Minister and Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill as deputy first minister.
Following a Brexit breakthrough on 8 December 2017, Foster broadly welcomed the deal to progress talks, stating that she was "pleased" to see changes which meant there is "no red line down the Irish Sea".
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For many observers, the new DUP leader's former associations with the Ulster Unionist Party and her membership of the Church of Ireland represented a break with her party's fundamentalist past.
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