Big challenge awaits Foster as DUP leader and First Minister

Morning View
Morning View

It’s something that no one could have envisaged back in April 1998. Arlene Foster, with her fellow Ulster Unionist Jeffrey Donaldson, was pictured walking away from negotiations on the eve of the Good Friday Agreement being signed.

It was a decision that has shaped both of their careers. Years of division within the UUP followed and by 2004 they had both resigned and made the switch to the DUP.

Their decisions were vindicated by the following year as Ian Paisley’s party swept all before them in the 2005 General Election, establishing the DUP as the biggest unionist party after years of UUP dominance.

Mr Donaldson, the Lagan Valley MP, had been the more high-profile of the two new arrivals but it is Mrs Foster whose rise has been the most meteoric.

She will soon be officially crowned as DUP leader and as First Minister of Northern Ireland.

As the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA readily concedes, she is facing an “awesome challenge”, but importantly she is taking charge of a party that is largely behind her, both in the Assembly and at Westminster.

She is popular amongst the public too, having done the hard yards as an effective Assembly member in her Fermanagh heartland and then impressing as Minister for Enterprise Trade and Investment.

Mrs Foster should re-energise the DUP ahead of the pivotal Assembly elections next spring, though Mike Nesbitt has emerged as a significant danger, with the UUP now a fully-fledged alternative for a swathe of unionist voters.

Electing a female leader should be a popular move electorally but that will only be a factor as long as Mrs Foster continues to perform with the assurance she has so far exuded. There is every reason to believe she will do so.

Mrs Foster is very able for the challenge of standing up for unionism and the contest between her and Mr Nesbitt should be one to relish between now and next May.