Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister arrives at a hotel in Belfast to be elected leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on December 17, 2015. A special electoral college will gather at the hotel, and Foster is the only candidate for the leadership. Foster will replace Peter Robinson following his announcement that he will step down as Northern Ireland's First Minister and as leader of the DUP. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITH / AFP / PAUL FAITH (Photo credit should read PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Finance Minister © AFP

A moment of history will be made in Northern Ireland on Monday when Arlene Foster becomes the first woman to be appointed first minister in the smoothest change of leadership in the province since the Good Friday agreement nearly 20 years ago.

Ms Foster will succeed Peter Robinson, a veteran personality in the turbulent politics of Northern Ireland, who is stepping down after eight years in the job.

She replaced him last month as leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the main voice of Ulster unionism.

“I want to be ambitious for the country and party that I lead,” Ms Foster said in her New Year’s message.

She takes over the leadership of Northern Ireland after a disastrous 2015, when the province’s devolved institutions came close to collapse in a stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the main Irish nationalist party, over security and the threat from paramilitaries.

The economy is also in the doldrums. Northern Ireland remains highly dependent on public spending from Westminster. Much of the political deadlock that characterises the workings of the Stormont executive and elected assembly is tied to disagreements between unionists and nationalists over financial reforms.

Issues that have been neglected by the region’s politicians — including welfare and educational reform, tuition fees, and continuing sectarian and social divisions — are becoming more pressing.

At the same time, demands for a more liberal stance on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage are growing louder in a challenge to the often rigid conservatism of Northern Irish politics.

Ms Foster, who is regarded as both pragmatic and highly competent, will have to forge a consensus to deal with a rapidly growing policy backlog with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister.

“She’s very highly rated in the business community — she’s been there and done it,” says Nigel Smyth, director of the CBI employers’ organisation in Northern Ireland, referring to her stint as finance minister in the executive. “Last year was a bit of a disaster, so we’re hoping things will get off to a better start this time.”

Ms Foster, 45, is the youngest first minister in the job’s brief history and also the youngest DUP leader.

A lawyer from County Fermanagh, she is seen as an excellent negotiator. Moreover, she is the first DUP leader who is not from the “Orange” tradition, though she is said to be sympathetic to the Orange Order, the arcane institution that claims to be the cultural expression of Ulster unionism.

Ms Foster has direct experience of Northern Ireland’s “troubles”, the 30 years of sectarian strife that ended with the Good Friday agreement. The IRA once tried to murder her father, a reservist in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. She also narrowly avoided injury when the school bus on which she was travelling was the target of a bomb attack.

That has made her uncompromising about the legacy of Northern Ireland’s paramilitary past. “She’s not a moderate — she can be as hardline as any other unionist,” says Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and an expert on Ulster unionism. “But she doesn’t bring an innate sectarianism to the issue.”

The first challenge Ms Foster faces is keeping the Stormont institutions running effectively until the next set of assembly elections on May 5. The DUP is likely to face a tougher election campaign than any it has experienced because its main rival for the unionist vote — the Ulster Unionist party — is undergoing a mini revival.

Only once the election is over will Ms Foster be able to put her stamp on the first minister’s office. She will have to prove she can run Northern Ireland beyond the narrow confines of unionism, whether socially, in making it a more integrated society, or economically. “She needs to be able to tell us what Northern Ireland might look like in 2025,” Prof Tonge says.

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