Sam McBride: While lauding Robinson, Foster has subtly taken a different path

Arlene Foster, right, has been full of praise for her predecessor as DUP leader, Peter Robinson, left, but has nonetheless adopted a different leadership style in her opening days in the top jobs.''Picture by Kelvin Boyes  / Press Eye

Arlene Foster, right, has been full of praise for her predecessor as DUP leader, Peter Robinson, left, but has nonetheless adopted a different leadership style in her opening days in the top jobs.''Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

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Since becoming First Minister on Monday, Arlene Foster has dexterously distanced herself from her predecessor – while publicly praising him.

Demonstrating considerable political skill, the new DUP leader has attempted to make clear that the party is turning over a new leaf, even though she has yet to change a single DUP policy.

Mrs Foster’s achievement is an example of how critical perception and presentation are in modern politics – essentially the appointment of a different saleswoman for the same product has instantly made the product feel a bit fresher.

Mrs Foster’s change of tack began with the media.

Even in an age of social media, the vast majority of the public learn of political developments via journalists. Yet Peter Robinson (who had long had a fractious relationship with the media) increasingly had cut himself off from several outlets.

Mr Robinson had latterly declined to be interviewed by either this newspaper or the Irish News – yet Mrs Foster invited both newspapers to interview her within hours of being appointed on Monday.

At the same time, BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme, with which Mr Robinson had a tempestuous relationship ever since it revealed his wife’s affair and business dealings with property developers, was filming a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary with Mrs Foster, in which she is expected to be interviewed at length.

In the carefully planned DUP leadership transition, such changes will not have been accidental and they carry an implicit recognition that despite his considerable abilities Mr Robinson had become a problem for the party.

In the Assembly on Monday, Mrs Foster lauded Mr Robinson as “the most astute unionist political leader of...any era in Northern Ireland’s history” who “helped redraw the unionist political map”.

There is no suggestion that Mrs Foster’s praise of Mr Robinson is anything other than genuine and it is in keeping with her great loyalty to him both before and during his leadership of the party.

But her actions this week, it is clear that she recognises the need for a new approach.

After a week in which she has undertaken a host of media interviews without any major gaffes and conducted a reshuffle (in which two ‘old DUP’ MLAs have been promoted) with minimal internal dissent, the DUP is likely to be pretty satisfied with its new leader.

But Mr Robinson’s leadership began confidently, too. Mrs Foster’s leadership will be tested in coming weeks as she attempts to keep the various wings of the DUP happy on her policy decisions as the party faces choices on numerous pieces of legislation coming before the Assembly before dissolution at the end of March.

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