Arlene Foster: ‘IRA tried to kill my Dad, I understand victims’

Arlene Foster visits Pond Park Primary School in Lisburn on her first engagement as first minister. She said she felt a responsibility to lead the country in a way that ensures that the children have every opportunity to succeed.  Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Arlene Foster visits Pond Park Primary School in Lisburn on her first engagement as first minister. She said she felt a responsibility to lead the country in a way that ensures that the children have every opportunity to succeed. Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

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Over the course of the last few weeks I have been touched by the many messages of support and goodwill that I have received from every corner of Northern Ireland.

As I commence my time as the First Minister of our country I take immense comfort in the knowledge that there are so many people who want to see me succeed in my stated goal of making Northern Ireland a better place for each and every citizen.

I pledge myself to do all in my power to deliver a safer, more prosperous Northern Ireland in which every person young or old can attain their full potential.

I am almost at the end of my first week in office now and I want to take this chance to share some thoughts with you about my vision for the future and how it was formed.

I was born and reared in rural County Fermanagh. My father was a Fermanagh man whilst my mother was a Sandy Row girl. I have the fondest memories of my childhood.

I was fortunate to have a stable home environment and loving parents. My father and mother instilled in me the values that have shaped my world view. The importance of hard work: of setting targets and goals and striving to attain them is something I inherited from my parents.

I know most of you would say this about your father, but my father was a great man. Not only did he work hard to support his family but he also cared enough about his country to put on a uniform during the dark days of the past.

He loved his country as do I. My father taught me to be proudly British but to show it in a way that should cause offence or hurt to no person. Respect and courtesy towards others were some of his core characteristics.

When the Provisional IRA attempted to murder my dad, the reality of what Northern Ireland was at that time entered my consciousness. As a young child, I simply could not comprehend why anybody would want to murder my father.

I now know that this was a deliberate tactic: of targeting vulnerable border Protestants to drive them from their homes. My dad was the heart of our family and the IRA attempted to rip it out. I thank God that they failed.

I know that the length and breadth of Northern Ireland there are many thousands of people who endured similar experiences to mine or worse: they lost loved ones and had the heart ripped out of their family. I want to send a very direct message to the victims of the violence: I am one of you, I am on your side and I will not let you down.

This week I visited Pond Park Primary School in Lisburn. I was so touched by the warmth of the welcome given to me by the staff and the pupils. As I looked around the school and spoke to the children and teachers I felt an enormous sense of personal responsibility.

It falls to me to lead my party and my country in such a way as to ensure that those youngsters are given by their government every possible opportunity to succeed. As a mother I can testify to the inherent ability of all children to get straight to the point.

Whilst grown-ups dance around an issue or speak in code, we can always rely upon our children to cut through the waffle and the kids at Pond Park were no exception. A young girl asked me straight out: “why are you involved in politics?”

I answered that I am involved in politics because I want children like her when they grow up and travel around the world to be proud to say that they are from Northern Ireland. Whilst episodes from my own childhood showed just how bad things could get in Northern Ireland I believe those days are past us.

None but a few deranged extremists would ever hope to go back there. I want that child to grow up in a country that is full of opportunity for her and her classmates. I don’t want them to be embarrassed or reticent in the least about saying they are from Northern Ireland. I want them to love their homeland just as much as I do.

Those children deserve to live in a country where the horrors of our past do not determine the limits of their futures. It would be a sin for us to allow their potential to be wasted or squandered.

That is why I am determined that we will maximise the educational opportunities available to them and tackle underachievement. This will be one of the areas I will be leading on.

Moving forward our focus must be upon the future. At the end of the next Assembly term Northern Ireland will celebrate its one-hundredth birthday. The fledgling state created in the midst of conflict and which nobody thought would survive has in fact endured.

It is time for her to truly flourish. With your help and support I want Northern Ireland’s second century to surpass the achievements of her first. By working together, even with those who have different views to ourselves, I believe we can build a better Northern Ireland.

Let us move forward together to build a country that our children will be proud of.

• Arlene Foster MLA is first minister and DUP leader