Foster interview: ‘Being a role model for girls is a heavy burden’

First Minister Arlene Foster pictured in her office at Parliament Buildings
First Minister Arlene Foster pictured in her office at Parliament Buildings
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  • Wide-ranging interview explores First Minister’s background
  • She talks about balancing family life and politics
  • Says Girl Guides helped build up her self-esteem

It’s over 10 years since I last sat down with Arlene Foster for a face to face interview.

The year was 2005 and the venue for our meeting was the tiny DUP constituency office in Dungannon’s Thomas Street.

I will say this: when you’re in this job, it is difficult to be fit

Arlene Foster

I remember it well. The two of us sat huddled over a desk in the small room, and my pen scribbled furiously as we talked about her selection as the DUP’s candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the United Kingdom general election.

What I recall most from that exchange was her admission that becoming an MP was a personal ambition she had held for a long time.

I was struck by the drive and determination of this lady, who in spite of her professional success, retained the down-to-earth demeanour of a Co Fermanagh born girl from a rural background.

Foster did not attain her then goal of election to the seat of the UK government. But today, she is not only the leader of Northern Ireland’s largest political party, but the leader of our country. And she’s the first female to hold either post.

“It’s a heavy responsibility, and I realise that,” she says earnestly, on this our second meeting in a setting that is vastly different from our first - one of the offices in Stormont’s Parliament Buildings.

“It is a heavy burden to carry, the fact that you are a role model for a lot of young girls right across Northern Ireland, but I’m really enjoying it I have to say.

“We had a group of young Lower Sixth girls in yesterday, and we were all getting our selfies done. They were political students, and it’s great for them to be able to say, ‘well, some day I could be First Minister of Northern Ireland - here is a woman from a rural background, who has risen up and is now the First Minister’.”

A former student of Collegiate Grammar School in Enniskillen, Arlene is evidently fiercely proud of her country roots, and it’s something others also find endearing. Yes, she is intelligent and ambitious and sharp. But she also has empathy. She is ‘real’.

And she attributes her understanding of the realities of the world to the fact that she established a career for herself outside of politics first. She studied Law at Queen’s and went on to qualify as a solicitor.

“I did say to the younger people when I was talking to them that I think it is worth having another career before you come in to politics,” she says thoughtfully.

“You will a have depth to you then. Sometimes, on the mainland, when you look at some of the men, they go straight from college to becoming a political adviser then they become a politician themselves, and they really don’t have any experience of the real world. I think it’s important to have that.”

The young Arlene Kelly had someone of her own to look up to in the political sense - the then Prime Minister of Great Britain, Baroness Margaret Thatcher.

“When I was growing up of course, we had a female Prime Minister, so that did have an impact on me, there’s no doubt about that,” she says.

But unlike the ‘Iron Lady’, who was at times over the years criticised for not being exactly encouraging of her female counterparts in so far as cajoling them to climb further up the political ladder themselves, Arlene insists this is not, personally, “the way I operate”.

“I very much value my female colleagues, and encourage them to become more involved,” she says. “I am very proud of the fact that we have Michelle (McIlveen) as DRD Minister and Emma (Pengelly) as Junior Minister as well.

“Some people perceive politics, particularly in Northern Ireland, as very aggressive, male dominated environment. Sometimes because of that, a lot of women who are just as talented as their male equivalents don’t put themselves forward in the same way.

“I want to encourage people to say to those women - politics is a hugely rewarding career, you will have opportunities that you would never have thought they could have had.”

She’s undoubtedly supportive of and keen to represent her own sex, but Arlene Foster is hugely respectful of - and conversely, I’m positive, has the respect of - her male colleagues as well.

“I do have to say as well that the people who have helped me along the way in my political career and journey have been my male colleagues, so it’s not always women that help other women - it’s very often men that help women to move forward,” she says candidly.

“And of course I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Dr Paisley and for Peter Robinson.

“I grew up in an era when women really weren’t in the front line of politics; there was the whole issue of a female role in a political party being to fundraise and help with the catering and make the tea, and do all of that sort of thing. And that really wasn’t where my interests lay.

“Let’s be honest; I am quite a confident person, so I put myself forward in terms of policies and issues and that’s how I came through the system. I would say there are two things which genuinely, in my teenage years and when I was young, helped me with all of that (being confident).

“First of all, being involved with the Brownies and Girl Guides - those single sex organisations allowed you to build up your self esteem, and to really put yourself forward in all of the ways that you could in that organisation. I am a great believer in the Guiding organisation.

“And then in terms of my own schooling, I was the first of my on family to go to a grammar school. It was an all girls outfit again, and so also allowed confidence to develop, and as you went through those teenage years and onto university, you found that you had a voice and you could use it.”

Her honesty is heartfelt and appealing; so too is her quiet pride in what she has achieved, and her passion for leading a country she is not afraid to admit that she loves.

“I am incredibly proud (to be First Minister) because I absolutely love this country, and it is an honour to be able to lead your country when you have such a love for it. It is a tremendous privilege for me to be in this position.”

She’s a mum herself; her children are Sarah, George and Ben, and are all either in or approaching their teenager years. She is married to former policeman Brian.

“It is absolutely about balance,” she nods, as we discuss the demands of raising a young family when you’re also running the country.

“It’s about making time for the children when they have important events, getting those events into the calendar. And then it’s about having, as I do, a very supportive husband, someone who understands the late nights and the way my diary works. And it’s about having good childminders, friends who will step into the breach if you are running late. It’s all about having that whole network in place, and I was for many, many years very fortunate to have my dear mother-in-law living in a granny flat in the same house as myself. She was a tremendous support; unfortunately she passed away in November 2014, so she didn’t get to see me becoming First Minister either. I was very close to her.”

A typical week in the life of the First Minister, she says, doesn’t exist.

The course of a day alone could see her travel from west Belfast to Ballynahinch, to meet with people, party members, constituents.

She doesn’t always make it home to Fermanagh in time for dinner (she’ll eat at night in the office if her workload demands it) but even when she does get a little down time, the responsibilities of an all-consuming career and a busy family life mean she has little time for her own hobbies and pursuits.

She does, however, like to watch the soaps for a little light relief, and she confesses to being a fan of Strictly Come Dancing: “If it’s a case of the X Factor or Strictly, I’m a Strictly girl.”

And she reveals that both her and her husband Brian love eating out.

“I will say this: when you’re in this job, it is difficult to be fit, it can difficult in terms of putting on weight - we call it the Stormont Stone up here,” she continues.

“Particularly in this the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink, when I’m out for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner...it all sounds terribly glamorous, but if you’re being sedentary all the time, it certainly is a challenge.”

What is clearly not a challenge to Arlene Foster, however, is maintaining her drive and her passion for what she see as the crux of her role as First Minister - helping people.

“What I still love most about politics is representing my constituency, and getting a good deal for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get that,” she says.

“I’ll always remember a lady who came in to us a couple of days before Christmas as she was having difficulty getting her benefit. She had no money, she had a child. We managed to get her benefit in place before Christmas, and she came in with a bunch of flowers from Tesco for me. That has stayed with me right throughout.

“All of the big stuff is very important, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy it, I love the constitutional stuff, I love debating in relation to all of the big areas of politics in Northern Ireland.

“But it is the grassroots stuff that I really love as well. And for a lot of women it is that public service element which attracts them into politics. We are public servants at the end of the day.”