A privilege to serve, says Arlene

Published: 14 Jan 2010 09:100 comments

One of the first calls that Northern Ireland's acting First Minister, Arlene Foster received this week was from Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Acting First Minister Arlene Foster, serving breakfast to her children George, Ben and Sarah.<<

And Mrs. Foster says there was "no pressure" from Number 10 -- or the Secretary of State -- about policing and justice, the issue which had dominated politics here until last week's bombshell revelations about Strangford MP, Iris Robinson.

The storm resulted in her husband, Peter Robinson "standing aside" as First Minister to clear his name after BBC Spotlight revealed details of his wife's affair and financial dealings with her teenage lover, Kirk McCambley.

DUP Assembly member for Fermanagh-south Tyrone, Arlene Foster agreed on Monday to "act up" as First Minister for six weeks.

In an interview with the Impartial Reporter, Mrs. Foster said it had been a "whirlwind" week, but re-iterated her belief that Mr. Robinson would be back as First Minister.

During the Stormont debate, after Speaker William Hay announced her appointment, Mrs. Foster told the packed House that she believed "in her heart" that Mr. Robinson would clear his name.

Mrs. Foster revealed that during discussions over the week-end, she had some idea of what was going to happen on Monday morning when the DUP Assembly team, the Parliamentary party and MEP, Diane Dodds met.

Mrs. Foster said she had no doubts about accepting the position, which makes her the first woman and the youngest person to hold the top office in any United Kingdom administration, and only the second woman after Margaret Thatcher to hold any Government leader position in these islands.

She told the Impartial Reporter: "Of course, it is a great honour to be asked, and a great privilege to help in these difficult times.

"But I am not doing this on my own; there is very tangible support from my colleagues. And it is undoubtedly a temporary measure because we are all behind Peter and are absolutely confident he will be back," said Mrs. Foster.

Immediately on Monday afternoon, Mrs. Foster entered centre stage in a political drama which has seen all the media go into overdrive.

After the Assembly session and the subsequent round of media interviews, the new acting First Minister received a series of phone calls and text messages, many of them from wellwishers in her native Fermanagh.

She was also contacted by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward and a number of high profile figures, including the U.S. ambassador.

But, she said, there had been "no pressure" from Mr. Brown to move on policing and justice.

"No. The calls were all wishing me well, just touching base and basically saying we are here to support you," said Mrs. Foster.

Her Ulster Unionist opponents have branded her a "lame duck" First Minister, but Mrs. Foster dismissed that, saying: "We very much regret what has happened but we are getting on with matters."

This included the vexed issue of the devolution of policing and justice, but Mrs. Foster said the party was still "very much focused" and events have not derailed their thinking on the problem.

"We had a meeting with Sinn Fein on Tuesday, and that included Nigel Dodds, Sammy Wilson, Nelson McCausland and Edwin Poots. They are all involved. Our position has not changed, we want to see the devolution of policing and justice when the time is right."

The DUP position has also been attacked by Jim Allister, leader of TUV, who has called for Mr. Robinson to go.

However, Mrs. Foster insists: "Peter Robinson will continue to be our leader."

She has, of course, been selected to fight the Fermanagh-south Tyrone seat in the General Election this year, and previously stated if she won the Westminster seat she would relinquish her Assembly seat.

During her First Minister stint, Mrs. Foster will also continue in her role as Minister of the Department of Enterprise, and was at pains to point out that this important work will not suffer.

Mrs. Foster, who returns to her Fermanagh home in the evenings, is well used to multi-tasking, having combined the roles of politician, lawyer, wife and mother.

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