Born Arlene Kelly in Enniskillen in 1970, Dame Arlene Foster grew up on a farm in County Fermanagh, close to the Irish border.
In her youth, Foster experienced two separate IRA attacks. This first-hand involvement in the ‘Irish Troubles’ has seen many speculate that the attacks were the motivating force in her political career, and they have surely had a lasting impact on Foster’s political outlook.
In her teens, Foster began involving herself in Unionist politics – initially with the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). However, it wasn’t long before Foster switched to the Democratic Unionist Party (the DUP).
As a DUP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Foster quickly rose up the ranks of her new party. Arlene Foster is best known around Westminster for her role in the DUP‘s post-2017 Confidence and-Supply arrangement with Theresa May’s Conservative government.
What is Dame Arlene Foster doing now
Arlene Foster stood down from the Northern Ireland Assembly in late 2022.
Since that time the former DUP leader has been appointed as a director of a peace-building charity, Co-operation Ireland. Other board members include former DUP leader Peter Robinson, ex-Taoiseach John Bruton, Baroness Margaret Ritchie and former PSNI chief constable Sir George Hamilton.
Since standing down as First Minister, Arlene Foster has also been a regular contributor on the TV Channel, GB News.
Arlene Foster was appointed a Dame in the June 2022 honours list.
Foster served as the leader of the DUP between 2015 and 2021, and First Minister on two separate occasions: once from 2016 to January 2017 and, then from January 2020 to June 2021.
In her first stint as Northern Ireland‘s First Minister, Foster served alongside Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness, the then-leader of Sinn Fein. This ‘power-sharing’ is necessitated by the Good Friday Agreement of 1999 and the arrangements therein.
The Good Friday Agreement states that the First and Deputy First Ministers are equal. Given this, Foster was forced to resign from her role as First Minister in 2017 following McGuiness’ own resignation. McGuiness resigned over the Renewable Heat Energy scandal (covered below).
In the years after McGuiness’ 2017 resignation, Northern Irish politics spiraled into a state of political paralysis. The deadlock was finally overcome in January 2020, when a power-sharing agreement was reached between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Foster returned to the post of First Minister, this time serving alongside Sinn Fein leader, Michelle O’Neill, who holds the post of Deputy First Minister.
Upon the agreement of the new power-sharing deal, Northern Ireland, like the rest of the world, was hit by the coronavirus pandemic. In her capacity as First Minister, Arlene Foster has led the response of the Northern Irish Executive – given COVID 19 restrictions are a devolved matter. Like the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland moved in and out of lockdown for almost a year. And like the rest of Britain’s leaders, Northern Irelands leaders were at times criticised for their response.
Heat Incentive Scandal
As the Northern Irish Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2012, Foster oversaw the implementation of the infamous Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. The scheme was designed to encourage Northern Irish businesses to opt for renewable energy sources, but its operation became majorly flawed and the scheme ran vastly over-budget.
With fears that it encouraged businesses to ‘burn to earn’, it was predicted that overspending could reach as much as £700m over 20 years. Having overseen the implementation of the RHI in her capacity Enterprise Minister, Foster was blamed for the failure.
The Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme was eventually closed to new applicants in February 2016 by DUP minister Jonathan Bell, Foster’s successor in the DETI department. In an interview with the BBC 10 months later, Bell claimed Foster had tried to overrule this decision and was verbally abusive in the process. Foster has denied these accusations, saying that it was she who ‘felt intimidated by Jonathan Bell’.
Foster henceforth faced calls for resignation over her role in the perceived Renewable Heat Incentive Scandal, but she resisted . Instead, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness chose to resign and, due to the nature of the ‘joint’ First-Minster office, Foster was forced to resign as well.
The collapse of the government led to an election in 2017, following which the DUP lost 10 seats. Power-sharing was not renewed until January 2020.
When Arlene Foster first involved herself in politics she was a member of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). As a solicitor, Foster quickly rose through the ranks of the party and was elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 2003.
As a DUP MLA, Foster moved into the Northern Irish Executive branch, becoming the Minister for the Environment from 2007-2008, Minister for Enterprise from 2008-2015 and Minister for Finance from 2015-2016.
Foster quickly established herself as a star in the party and in 2010 when the then-DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson temporarily stepped aside, Foster took over. Although Robinson returned quickly, he eventually resigned in late 2015 and Foster then took over his responsibilities permanently. Foster was the first female leader of the DUP.
Foster led the DUP into the 2017 UK General Election and in the resulting hung-parliament, Foster became king-maker, forging a confidence-and-supply deal with Theresa May.
In April 2021, Foster fell foul to an internal coup within the Democratic Unionist Party. Some four fifths of the DUP’s MPs and Members of the Norther Ireland Assembly signed a letter of no confidence in Mrs Foster’s leadership, amongst suggestions that Arlene Foster had become too moderate for many in the party’s liking.
Lacking sufficient party support, Arlene Foster announced her resignation as party leader and First Minister in late April 2021.
Dame Arlene Foster is a proud unionist and she aims to keep Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK. It for this reason that Foster deemed Theresa May’s ‘Northern Irish Backstop’ “toxic”.
The DUP voted against May’s and subsequently Johnson’s Brexit deal on three occasions, citing concerns about the creation of a border in the Irish Sea . However, the DUP’s Arlene Foster and the DUP as a whole were vocal supporters of Brexit.
A social conservative, Foster voted consistently against gay marriage. Foster is also anti-abortion, describing it as a DUP ‘red-line’.
Experience of IRA Violence
Former DUP Leader Dame Arlene Foster has been at the centre of two IRA attacks in her life, both coming at a young age.
When Foster was 8 years old, the IRA tried to kill her father (a reservist police officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary). Foster has a vivid memory of the event, and in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph in 2015 said, ‘My father came in on all fours crawling, with blood coming from his head’.
About ten years later, the IRA set off a bomb on her school bus in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the driver. Foster later said, ‘I was actually sitting beside a friend’s sister and I was in the inside and she was in the aisle. She was very badly injured’.
Arlene Foster grew up in a conservative, unionist household. Her father was a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Her parents met at a football match between Lisburn Distillery and Linfield, where they supported opposing teams.
Mrs Foster was the first in her family to go to University; she is a graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast.
At age 25, on 24 August 1995, Foster married Brain Foster-the nephew of UUP politician, Sam Foster. The couple have three children.
Twitter – @DUPleader