Arlene Foster is something of a shrinking violet, painfully shy…….said no one ever!

If she was, you’d imagine the experience of the last few weeks would’ve pierced even the toughest of exteriors.

But a couple of images reminded us that Mrs. Foster is made of stern stuff, with an ego which may in part explain recent events.

Last Thursday evening, when the DUP met to ratify Edwin Poots as their new party leader, television cameras recorded Arlene breezily striding out of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, glasses perched nonchalantly on head, giving the press a peace V-sign and looking relaxed and confident. This was hardly the body language of someone her predecessor, Peter Robinson described as “humiliated” and “roadkill”.

Inside the hotel, the painful acrimony of party factions was continuing, making the incoming leader wait hours before making his first speech. And when Poots did begin speaking after an artificial-looking standing ovation – at least from those still there – it was him who looked like the one who’d been through a brutal evisceration.

Lobster scallops

By the weekend, I was reading an account by the chief features writer of the Financial Times of his interview with Arlene Foster at the Watermill Restaurant, which opened for lunch just for her and she enjoyed a panache of lobster, scallops and sea bass with vanilla and white wine beurre, “something very special” as promised by the chef for her. All washed down with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

Presumably the journalist claimed expenses for picking up the tab for the £80 lunch for two. But he got his money’s worth, with some lively quotes about her “brutal” treatment by the DUP and her criticism of the Poots leadership as “regressing” and “becoming more narrow”.

She was clearly in good form, as Henry Mance writes: “Arlene Foster descends from her chauffeur-driven Land Rover smiling.”

Those of us who have followed her 25-career and rise to high office know that this was no bravado act.

What you see is what you get with Arlene Foster, whatever your opinion of her. There is no doubt she will have been hurt by recent events, but she’s far from crushed and clearly seems ready for the next phase of her life. And, of course, she’s been at the sharp end of politics long enough to know how cruel it can be.

What will that next phase be? What will the effect of her departure be on her soon-to-be former party, and indeed the rest of us? How will history judge her as a leader?

The day the news broke about the letter being signed by her party colleagues losing their confidence in her, I took part in a discussion on Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme and William Crawley asked me how she would be rated as a leader.

Too early to judge

I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say it was far too early to answer an impossible question, but instead I floundered and waffled. Although a lot has happened it still seems too early to judge, but even after a few weeks we’re getting a little of the flavour of what went on behind the scenes.

On Tuesday evening, the new deputy leader of the DUP, Paula Bradley was asked what Edwin Poots would bring to the leadership that Arlene Foster didn’t. “He’s more approachable,” she replied, and was “very easy to talk to”.

By implication, Arlene Foster wasn’t. In that Financial Times piece, Henry Mance described Arlene Foster as a “polarising figure” and away back in 2003, her fractious departure from the Ulster Unionist Party saw her severely criticised personally by her erstwhile colleagues.

Any leader needs confidence, and a thick skin, but there’s a fine line between super confidence and over-confidence, and there have been rumblings for some time about Mrs. Foster “losing (at least some of) the dressing room” with some members of the DUP privately telling journalists that she wasn’t listening to a certain section of the party.

The brutal nature of her defenestration shows politics at its worst, and a lot of the focus has been on the ruthless manner of her overthrow. Yet, there has been speculation for some time about her leadership, particularly in the wake of the RHI debacle.

And despite the Fermanagh-south Tyrone DUP issuing a statement attacking the nature of her overthrow, some local members suggested to journalists that things had changed here, too.

It must, surely, always be a difficult act for someone in high office to maintain their working relationship with their local constituency.

To be fair, it was always something that Arlene Foster managed well, and she retains a high level of loyalty and popularity among her support base.

As time goes on her overall leadership will be weighed better in the balance of achievement and failure, as with any leader.

DUP problems

In the short-term, the departure of Mrs. Foster leaves the DUP with problems. She has already shown that she will not go quietly, and her statement that she will resign when the new DUP Ministerial team is announced appears to have already thrown the new leader’s plan into a dither.

Criticism of the Poots leadership isn’t just personal; Mrs. Foster has put her finger on wider concerns about the backward direction of the party. Ian Paisley junior has moved centre stage and his cosying up to loyalists is a sure sign of where the DUP is heading in its bid to recapture lost ground in the polls.

This seems to be a misguided strategy, given that the major loss of younger Unionist votes appears to be to the more progressive and socially liberal attitudes of today.

With Poots at the helm and the influence of Paisley, the perception is that the party is going back to a time when their two fathers founded the fundamental movement. And with Paul Givan tipped as our next First Minister, it’s hardly a trinity which inspires confidence of a society moving forward to a shared, better future.


The Foster departure also leaves the DUP facing into an anxious electoral future. Foster herself made the DUP a force here in Fermanagh-south Tyrone where it had been very much a small minority party; though it has to be said that this area still remains a majority UUP area on the unionist side. Who’d be the DUP candidate in Fermanagh-south Tyrone at the next Assembly election?

Don’t all rush.

But across Northern Ireland, things are uncertain for the DUP following Mrs. Foster’s departure; internal wrangling and possible resignations and a leadership struggling as they look at dwindling votes whenever an election comes.

As for Arlene Foster, we don’t know what her future holds, except on a personal level it would seem brighter than her party’s. Her political career of a quarter of a century has seen her rise to a high profile with access to the corridors of power in Westminster and Dublin. And with this influence and skillset, she is young enough to forge something of a new career. Already, she has indicated that she wishes to tackle the online abuse of women.

Baroness Foster?

It was interesting that among the few media interviews she has given, two were to London outlets, with a BBC Newscast as well as the Financial Times, who asked her about accepting a seat in the House of Lords. “I haven’t been offered a seat in the Lords, so I’ll wait to see what happens,” was a reply which was a hint, surely, to Boris.

Whether it’s Baroness Foster, or simply, Arlene remains to be seen.

So don’t feel sorry for Arlene Foster, it’s the rest of us who face an uncertain future in the new Poots era.