It was a chance encounter in May last year at the 2015 Balmoral Show at the Maze when I passed the DUP stand. I came across the then party leader and First Minister, Peter Robinson MLA and then Minister for Finance and Personnel Arlene Foster MLA, who had taken over the portfolio a few days earlier at the start of that week. I had not seen either for a while and both readily agreed to have their photograph taken, which I used in an article I wrote for the Northern Standard. The way Peter put his arm around Arlene’s shoulder was perhaps an indication that later in the year she would become his preference for a successor when he announced he was standing down. Both were in very good mood at the time and I was fortunate to get a picture of them in an informal setting, rather than an office or the Assembly chamber.
Arlene Foster then turned the tables and very kindly offered to take a photo of myself with the then First Minister, proving her media skills! During our brief encounter, I did not ask Mr Robinson whether he was thinking about Arlene as a successor at that stage. But ten days later he was admitted to hospital with a suspected heart attack and was fitted with a heart stent. I assure you the timing was coincidental!
Arlene Foster grew up in Roslea, County Fermanagh, just across the border from Scotstown in County Monaghan. Her father, a small farmer, was a full-time RUC member and was injured in an IRA gun attack at their home in 1979. As a teenager in 1988, she survived an IRA bomb in Lisnaskea, which exploded under her school bus while it was being driven by a part-time UDR soldier.
A qualified solicitor and former member of the Ulster Unionist Party, Arlene Foster has always been very courteous in dealing with media requests for interviews. I wish her well in her new post, in which she will share responsibilty for government in Northern Ireland with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness. She has written an article for today’s Belfast Telegraph in which she outlines some of her priorities. She says she wants to lead the North in the right direction and ensure that children grow up in a better Northern Ireland than she did.