She may soon be Britain’s most powerful woman. But the public understanding of Arlene Foster, in as far as there is one, remains the stuff of caricature.
The cartoonists have the leader of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) as an Orange ogre. A dour, unwavering Northern Irish unionist from central casting – saying no to abortion reform, no to gay marriage, no to an Irish language act, no to the EU, no to the backstop. Yet this does little to unlock the riddle of a woman who could soon influence the direction of British history.
Foster’s most important formal role was as First Minister of the province from the start of 2016 until power-sharing collapsed a year later. But it is not her leadership of the DUP in the (currently closed) Stormont assembly that gives her power. That is not why she was invited into the royal box this year at Wimbledon. The reason for sudden importance is that her DUP has ten votes in the House of Commons.
In return for around £1bn additional spending for Northern Ireland, she loaned those votes to Theresa May’s Conservative party to prop up their government. That arrangement, formally, is expiring. The new Tory leader, Boris Johnson, is going to need to win Foster over – and keep her persuaded.
The DUP’s support for the May administration was rather halting. Critically, the DUP disagreed with the terms of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, negotiated by May, because it would imply checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Worried about the integrity of the UK, they voted against the government.
Their No votes, furthermore, took others with them. Some Tories were persuaded of the DUP’s argument about the UK’s internal union – and will not support a deal that Northern Irish unionists do not. Foster’s refusals cost the government a lot more than 10 votes. In a tight parliament, her verdicts will be critical.
So who is she?
If we were to imagine a film of Foster’s life, we would probably focus on three scenes. The first two scenes are well-known but the third, perhaps the most telling, is not well understood. It would probably go something like this.
Scene one. A farmhouse outside Rosslea, Co Fermanagh, January 1979. The sound of gunfire freezes Georgina Kelly at the kitchen table. Moments later her husband Johnny, father of her four children, crawls into the house bleeding from his head. The family scramble into an upstairs bedroom. Johnny, a part-time reservist in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, crouches by the door ready to defend himself and his family from the gunmen with his bare hands if needs be. His eight-year-old daughter Arlene hides with her three siblings behind a bed, only emerging when she hears police sirens.
Scene two. A school bus, near Enniskillen, June 1988. Foster is sitting on the inside seat next to a friend, having failed to secure the coveted place by the window. An explosion rips through the bus, badly injuring her friend. Foster tells her fellow pupils to stay calm and urges them to get off. Later she is interviewed by Jeremy Paxman next to a Catholic schoolgirl who was also on the bus. Wearing her school uniform, she gives concise answers without any visible emotion.
Scene three. Castle Buildings, Belfast, Good Friday, April 1998. Inside a locked, windowless room in a 1960s office block, Ulster unionism is tearing itself apart. Exhausted officials from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the moderate party of Northern Ireland’s Protestant establishment, are debating whether to sign a peace deal that will secure Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. It would still need to be ratified at a referendum, but it would mean terrorists being released from prison and ministers from Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, helping run the country.
During the long night Foster had fainted with exhaustion. She is in the locked room when an aide of Tony Blair passes in a letter assuring them that Sinn Fein’s presence in government depended on IRA decommissioning. She watches on as David Trimble, the UUP leader, looks into space for what seems an aeon before declaring: “Right, I’m going for the agreement.” A distraught Foster explains to a senior colleague, through tears, why she cannot support the deal.
Although she was just 27, Foster was already regarded as a future leader of the UUP by the time Tony Blair faced the world’s media and declared he felt “the hand of history” on his shoulder. While Foster toiled in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Castle Buildings, the party she would later join and then go on to lead, the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), were visible only in a protest led by Ian Paisley outside the talks.
Paisley, a tub-thumping minister, had snubbed the negotiations on principle. Paisley led the DUP out of multi-party talks in 1997 when Sinn Fein was admitted following a ceasefire: the DUP insisted on decommissioning as a precondition to the talks.
While Paisley and the DUP heckled from the sidelines, Foster had been writing bullet points in support of a deal as late as 3am on Good Friday. “I wasn’t anti any agreement”, she would later say, just this deal. It split her family: the uncle of Brian Foster, Arlene’s husband, had stuck with Trimble and criticised her publicly.
The episode illustrates something rarely noted outside Northern Ireland: Arlene Foster leads the DUP, but she is not of the DUP.
Foster would later enjoy a warm relationship with Paisley – or“Doc”, as she and other DUP figures fondly called the DUP founder in reference to his honorary doctorates. That contrasted starkly with her more distant relationship with Trimble, who is not renowned, even among friends, as a people person.
Foster has in interviews recalled Doc phoning her frequently to ask about her son Ben’s heart condition and gently ribbing her, asking “how’s that poor husband of yours?”.
More widely Paisley is remembered for his unyielding politics and outlandish rhetoric and, conversely, for steering the DUP into an unlikely power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein in 2007. There is a famous picture of Paisley and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader at the time, as they signed a deal to restore power-sharing after the IRA had decommissioned and Sinn Fein pledged its support for the reformed police service. In the background between the two men, looking confidently at the camera in a smart suit with a file on her lap, is Arlene Foster. The young solicitor finally had a deal she could endorse.
Foster was among a cabal of young Ulster Unionists dubbed the “baby barristers” – a group of chiefly lawyers, who were promoted by Trimble and blooded in the Agreement negotiations. They rejected the Agreement, leaving Trimble feeling blindsided and betrayed. Foster, though, has maintained that their stance ought not to have surprised Trimble and remembers Jeffrey Donaldson, the most prominent of the young anti-Agreement unionists, telling Trimble clearly that the deal was unacceptable.
By 2004 Foster had followed Donaldson into the DUP. As a young woman in a male and stale party, her defection was a blow. “She stood out for a number of reasons”, recalled David Kerr, Trimble’s spokesman at the time. “She was very articulate and she was confident, with strong opinions. Her politics won her a lot of admirers – that rural Ulster Unionist sector all saw her as one of their own.”
A contemporary from Queen’s University – Foster was the first member of her family to go to university – said that few peers would have been surprised to hear she had reached the summit of unionism, but none would have guessed it would be with the DUP. In the summer of 1995 when she married Brian Foster, an RUC officer and well-known figure in the local rugby club, the reception was packed with Ulster Unionist figures.
Foster and Donaldson were the most visible of an influx of new members to the DUP. Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics at Liverpool University, has found that about a fifth of DUP members were disaffected former UUP members. Foster exemplifies this influx.
“The most liberal wing of members were ex-Ulster Unionists”, he said. “They were unhappy with aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, unhappy with aspects of David Trimble’s leadership. But they weren’t joining the DUP because they wanted to express themselves as religious conservatives – they weren’t Paisleyites.”
About a third of DUP members are drawn from Paisley’s evangelical Free Presbyterian church, which represents just 1 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population. Another large chunk are mainstream Presbyterians, who stem from a historically and theologically very distinct tradition from the Church of Ireland, the Anglican presence in Ireland. Foster, unlike Paisley and her predecessor Peter Robinson, is a Church of Ireland member.
The differences extend beyond their places of worship.
Where Paisley famously said country-and-western line dancing “clearly caters to the lust of flesh”, Foster was spotted gleefully singing and dancing along to a saccharine country song that was being performed before a BBC Northern Ireland panel debate. Paisley referred to alcohol as “the Devil’s buttermilk”, while Foster enjoys the occasional glass of wine. Paisley left the Orange Order in 1962 over the attendance of the Lord Mayor of Belfast at a requiem mass, while Foster has never been a member and was applauded when she entered St Columba’s church in Londonderry two years ago for the funeral of Martin McGuinness, the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and a former IRA commander.
It is true that she is hardly a liberal. The DUP has blocked the introduction of gay marriage and abortion reform in Northern Ireland, but the Commons and the Lords have voted to intervene if the devolved assembly has not been restored by the time.
But most DUP-watchers believe she will be relieved to have had the problems of gay marriage and abortion reform taken out of the party’s hands, relieving it of the dilemma of alienating the electorate or its members.
“I don’t think she would shed a vale of tears over the introduction of same-sex marriage”, said Tonge. “She’s an Ulster Unionist really within the DUP.”
While her instincts are out of step with the average DUP member, she is more closely aligned to the average DUP voter, who is less religious and less socially conservative, Tonge says. He notes data suggesting that on abortion reform, DUP voters are actually more liberal than Sinn Féin voters.
This tension, one former colleague suggests, may lie behind one of her greatest failures to date: the rejection by her party of a deal to restore the Assembly at Stormont by greater official recognition of the Irish language. Reluctant to give Sinn Féin the fillip of a standalone Irish Language Act, she had agreed that the issue would be addressed as part of a broader package. But she could not sell it to her colleagues and the proposal collapsed.
The episode may augur badly for her ability to sell any Brexit compromise to her party. While a former colleague says she almost certainly voted to leave the EU, it is striking that some of her closest lieutenants in the party are widely speculated to have voted to remain. Before the confidence and supply agreement brought the ten DUP MPs to the rescue of the Conservative government, Foster had been happy to write a joint letter to No.10 with Martin McGuinness, the leader of Sinn Féin, outlining the importance of an open border for the Northern Ireland economy.
The combination of the deal to prop up Theresa May’s government and the collapse of Stormont has to an extent shifted power from Foster to Nigel Dodds, the party’s Westminster chief. But Dodds is not among the party’s hardline Brexiters, having said recently that he would prefer to remain in the EU than leave under Theresa May’s deal.
In the longer term her grip on power within the party will probably depend on finding a Westminster seat or on the restoration of Stormont. And a cloud is gathering over the latter – an ash cloud, to be precise.
Foster was supposed to represent a professional generation of Northern Irish politician yet her reputation for competence has taken a battering through the “cash for ash” scandal. She had been economy minister when the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme was rolled out. It was intended to encourage the take up of renewable biomass heating. But she was accused of signing a “blank cheque” that let recipients effectively print money, with farmers in some cases heating empty sheds to claim subsidies.
Her performance at the ensuing public inquiry left few convinced, especially when she said she was “accountable but not responsible” for the costly fiasco which had been set to cost Northern Ireland £490 million in overspend.
The RHI inquiry, which is expected to produce a report in September, raised serious questions about governance in Northern Ireland and engendered a perception that devolved ministers and civil servants were conniving to draw as much Westminster funding as possible into the province. It also raised serious questions about the intimate relationship between the devolved government and Moy Park, a poultry producer that is Northern Ireland’s largest private sector employer.
But the worst insinuations – that DUP figures were personally benefiting – appear not to have been borne out by the facts, while scrutiny was also been thrown on the conduct of Sinn Féin ministers. Foster may well ride the storm out. That in itself would be a remarkable result: it was her refusal to resign or step aside while the scandal was investigated that was the final straw triggering Sinn Fein to collapse devolution.
There has certainly been scant evidence that voters are deserting the DUP at the ballot box: its vote in absolute terms has held up, even if Brexit has encouraged a rise in nationalist and republican turnout.
“If there’s a story in all this it’s a story of coming through the most difficult times with the party still in an incredibly strong position in Northern Ireland”, a former colleague said, adding that the notion that she was somehow venal was misplaced.
“She may be from Fermanagh in the very west of the UK but she is very much a UK unionist, rather than a narrow Northern Ireland-type unionist.”
The wobbles over cash-for-ash were not the only moments where Foster looked far removed from the safe pair of hands she was supposed to represent. She presented an open goal to Sinn Fein when outlining her opposition an Irish Language Act: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more.”
Cue language activists dressed as crocodiles. The comments were taken as indicative of a defensive, zero-sum attitude to nationalism – even, by some, as outrightly sectarian. It fed a narrative of Foster leading like the “antediluvian rural unionist she is”, in the words of Brian Feeney, a commentator at the nationalist Irish News.
The tone had been set in 2015 when the DUP, then led by Peter Robinson, pulled its ministers out of the devolved government in protest at a killing linked to the IRA but left Foster in place as finance minister. Foster said she was acting as a “gatekeeper” to prevent nationalists from damaging Northern Ireland – “principally, let’s be honest, the unionist community”.
She was similarly derided when she was asked on the Today programme last year how red her Brexit red lines were. “Blood red”, she answered, somewhat awkwardly given the DUP has been keen to downplay the threat of renewed violence on the border.
A former colleague said the gaffes were merely the sort of clumsy wording that get seized on in Northern Ireland – a political culture where, in the words of the late loyalist leader David Ervine, people will travel a hundred miles to be offended. Others argue they show traces of a sectarian us-and-them worldview.
Perhaps the two explanations aren’t entirely exclusive of one another. Her formative years were coloured by a brutal IRA campaign against border Protestants: it would be extraordinary if the experience did not colour her outlook somehow. Rosslea, where she spent her early years, had been a trouble spot before there was even a border.
In the mid-1990s, after the IRA ceasefire, Foster led a campaign to help people who had been forced from their homes by intimidation or violence in rural border areas to return. Many of the homes had been left derelict.
Foster herself has spoken of how the violence of the era corroded trust in communities.
“One of the most difficult things for my father was the feeling that people living nearby had set him up”, she told the Belfast Telegraph in 2015.
“That is one of the most insidious things that the Troubles did to communities like Fermanagh.”
Areas like where she grew up will be at the frontline of whatever happens in the next few months. If the girl from Rosslea is faced with an unpalatable choice it will not be the first time.
Photography by Getty Images