Arlene Foster

Arlene Isabel Foster PC MLA (née Kelly; born 17 July 1970)[1] is a Northern Irish[2] politician who served as First Minister of Northern Ireland from 2016 to 2017 and from 2020 to 2021 and as Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from 2015 to 2021. She was the first woman to hold either position. Foster has been a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone since 2003.

Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster in 2013
First Minister of Northern Ireland
In office
11 January 2020  14 June 2021
Serving with Michelle O'Neill
Succeeded byPaul Givan
In office
11 January 2016  9 January 2017[a]
Serving with Martin McGuinness
Preceded byPeter Robinson
Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party
In office
17 December 2015  28 May 2021
DeputyThe Lord Dodds of Duncairn
Preceded byPeter Robinson
Succeeded byEdwin Poots
Minister for Finance and Personnel
In office
11 May 2015  12 January 2016
Preceded bySimon Hamilton
Succeeded byMervyn Storey
Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment
In office
9 June 2008  11 May 2015
Preceded byNigel Dodds
Succeeded byJonathan Bell
Minister for the Environment
In office
8 May 2007  9 June 2008
Preceded byDermot Nesbitt
Succeeded bySammy Wilson
Member of the Legislative Assembly for Fermanagh and South Tyrone
Assumed office
26 November 2003
Preceded byJoan Carson
Personal details
Arlene Isabel Kelly

(1970-07-17) 17 July 1970[1]
Enniskillen, Northern Ireland
Political partyDemocratic Unionist Party (since 2004)
Other political
Independent (2003–2004)
Ulster Unionist Party (before 2003)
Spouse(s)Brian Foster
Alma materQueen's University Belfast
WebsiteOfficial website
^a Foster served as Acting FM from 11 January 2010 to 3 February 2010 and from 10 September 2015 to 20 October 2015 while Robinson was on leave.

Foster served in the Northern Ireland Executive as Minister of the Environment from 2007 to 2008, Minister for Enterprise and Investment from 2008 to 2015 and Minister for Finance and Personnel from 2015 to 2016. In December 2015, Foster was elected unopposed to succeed Peter Robinson as leader of the DUP. In January 2016, Foster became First Minister of Northern Ireland and shared power with Martin McGuinness.

McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister in January 2017 amid the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, which involved a green energy scheme that Foster set up during her time as Minister for Enterprise and Investment. The scheme was set to cost the taxpayer £490 million and there were allegations of corruption surrounding Foster's role in implementing the scheme. McGuinness asked Foster to step aside as First Minister while her involvement in the scheme was investigated, but she refused to step aside or resign and said that the voices calling for her resignation were those of "misogynists and male chauvinists".[3] Under the terms of the Northern Ireland power-sharing agreement, the First and deputy First Ministers are equal and, therefore, Foster could not remain in her post as First Minister and was subsequently removed from office. McGuinness's resignation caused a 2017 snap assembly election to be held, in which the DUP lost 10 seats. After no party received an outright majority in the 2017 general election, the DUP entered into an agreement with the Conservative Party to support Prime Minister Theresa May's government.[4] In January 2020, she became First Minister of Northern Ireland again after the Executive was reinstated under the terms of the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

On 28 April 2021, after more than 20 DUP MLAs and four DUP MPs signed a letter "...voicing no confidence in her leadership", Foster announced that she would resign as party leader and as First Minister. She was succeeded by Edwin Poots as DUP leader on 28 May 2021.[5] Foster left office as First Minister at 1pm on 14 June 2021[6] and was succeeded by Paul Givan as First Minister on 17 June 2021.[7]


Arlene Kelly, as she was then, was born in Enniskillen[8] and was raised at Dernawilt, a townland beside Aghadrumsee, a hamlet located between Lisnaskea and Roslea in the south-east of County Fermanagh.[9] Aghadrumsee, which is located in the Barony of Clankelly (Irish: Clann Cheallaigh, meaning 'Kelly Clan'), is only a few miles north of Clones, a town in County Monaghan.[10] When she was aged nine, her family moved to live in the Castlebalfour Estate, a housing estate in nearby Lisnaskea, after an IRA attack on the family home at Dernawilt.[8][11] She is a member of the Church of Ireland.[12] Her experience with the Troubles began early in her life when a night-time attempt was made to kill her father, a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) reservist, who was shot and severely injured at their family farm; the family was forced to leave the Roslea area,[9] moving to Lisnaskea instead.

As a teenager, Foster was on a school bus that was bombed by the IRA, the vehicle targeted because its driver was a soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). A girl sitting near her was seriously injured.[13] She was a pupil at Enniskillen Collegiate Grammar School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, from 1982 to 1989, and attended Queen's University Belfast (QUB), where she graduated with an LLB degree.[14] Her political career began at Queen's University Belfast when she joined the Queen's Unionist Association, part of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).[15]

She served as the association's chairman from 1992 to 1993.[16] After leaving Queen's University she remained active in the UUP, chairing its youth wing, the Ulster Young Unionist Council, in 1995. In 1996, she became an Honorary Secretary of the UUP's ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council, a position which she held until her resignation from the UUP on 18 December 2003.[16] She was a Councillor on Fermanagh District Council representing Enniskillen from 2005 to 2010.

Assembly career

She was elected as an Ulster Unionist in the 2003 Assembly elections. While a member of the UUP, she was part of a "rightwing cabal within the UUP known as the 'baby barristers'." They actively opposed party leader David Trimble, and were a "thorn in [his] side" after he supported the Belfast Agreement.[17]

In 2004, Foster resigned from the UUP and joined the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), together with fellow Assembly members Jeffrey Donaldson and Norah Beare.[18][19] She was selected as the DUP's candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the 2005 UK general election, where she gained 28.8% of the vote.[20]

Negotiations took place between the local branches of the DUP and UUP with the aim of finding an agreed unionist candidate. The negotiations broke down with neither party willing to accept the electoral dominance of the other; the UUP claiming Foster's defection to the DUP disguised the reality of the UUP's electoral strength, while the DUP pointed to the change in the unionist political landscape following the 2003 Assembly election and the 2004 European Parliament election. The UUP candidate was Tom Elliott. Foster finished second in the 2005 general election with 14,056 votes.

On 11 January 2010, she assumed the duties of the First Minister of Northern Ireland, as Peter Robinson stepped aside for a planned period of up to six weeks. Foster worked alongside the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.[21] Robinson returned earlier than planned, on 3 February 2010.[22]

Minister for the Environment

In September 2007, a privately financed proposal for a new Giant's Causeway centre was given preliminary approval by Foster in her role as Northern Ireland Environment Minister.[23] Immediately afterwards, the public money that had been allocated to the causeway development was frozen. The proposal resulted in a public row about the relationship between the private developer Seymour Sweeney and the DUP; Sweeney was a member of the DUP, although both he and the DUP denied that he had ever donated financially to the party.[24]

On 29 January 2008, Foster announced that she had decided against Sweeney's proposal for a £21 million visitors' centre on a protected greenfield site, reversing her earlier position of "being minded" to approve it.[25] Although the public funds for a causeway scheme remained frozen, it seemed highly likely that the publicly funded plan for the causeway would go ahead with the support of deputy DUP leader Nigel Dodds.[26]

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Foster as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2012.

A major concession for Northern Ireland was the reduction to zero of Air Passenger Duty on long-haul flights from the province. In the devolution settlement such burdens were to be born by the Assembly government. But negotiations proved how DUP could sell their support to Whitehall.[27] In 2011, she had written to the Organised Crime Task Force about the need to bring fuel licensing within the remit of the Petrol licensing Consolidation (NI) Act 1929, demonstrating the relevance of cross-border law enforcement jurisdiction in helping to reduce frauds.[28]

As the minister responsible for energy policy in June 2012, Foster criticised the Co-operative Group over the showing of a documentary opposing fracking, saying: "I find your claim that you take 'ethics to the next level' hard to reconcile with your demonstrable support for a film which presents a wholly one-sided and partial approach to the debate about hydraulic fracturing."[29]

She successfully liaised with UK ministers, such as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers MP, to restore HMS Caroline in Belfast.

In March 2014, Foster called for an apology for what she described as "deeply insulting" language" in a comment made by fellow MLA Anna Lo of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. Lo had described herself as "anti-colonial" and said the partition of Ireland was "artificial".[30] Foster herself was challenged in a blog by Irish writer Jude Collins over the fact that she had chosen to speak out so robustly on the matter after not commenting about remarks made the previous day by another Unionist politician, Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson. The former UVF member who was responsible for two sectarian murders during The Troubles stated that he had "no regrets in terms of my past because I believe that I contributed to preventing a united Ireland." Hutchinson also stated: "There is no room for violence in this society."[31][32]

First Minister of Northern Ireland

In January 2016, as she was poised to become First Minister, Foster stated that she would not be travelling to Dublin for the official centenary celebrations of the 1916 uprising against British rule, describing the rising as "an attack on democracy".[33]

Arlene Foster was First Minister of Northern Ireland from January 2016 to January 2017. She set the agenda during her maiden speech as First Minister as one of "hope for all the community".[34] Throughout Foster's period in office, a return to conservative social issues compounded by strong support for the government in Westminster made her a scourge of her left-wing critics. In May 2018, she announced she would be leading an Orange Order march in Fife, Scotland. As a committed member of the Order, this was a reason behind the original defection from the UUP ten years ago. As First Minister, Foster was emphatic in support for Brexit with a soft border along the republic; yet leaving the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.

The assembly was suspended following disagreements between the parties, particularly over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. While the Government talked about restoring the Executive as a "top priority" the constitutional impasse has made it impossible.[35] In May 2018, the High Court ruled that the civil service could not grant planning permission for an incinerator in Mallusk.[36]

In 2018, Foster addressed a PinkNews reception in Belfast, becoming the first DUP leader to attend an LGBT event.[37] Foster stated that, despite her opposition to same-sex marriage, she valued the contribution of the LGBT community in Northern Ireland and requested that differing views be respected.[37]

Committed to a business case, Foster was responsible for a super-fast broadband connection designed to enhance communications with international offerings. Regional Aid proved a vital part of the budget within the devolved framework. The reduction of sales and purchase taxes, such as Air Passenger Duty was typically part of her wider experience of stimulating business at DETI.[38] Fighting the cause of private enterprise has been an important issue for Foster: mobile phone companies and saving Bombardier jobs brought investment of £500 million, while public sector employment has declined.[39]

Renewable Heat Incentive scandal

In December 2016, Foster faced criticism and controversy after a whistleblower revealed that the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme overspent by £400m, a failure which has been nicknamed the Cash for Ash scandal.[40] The scheme was originally set up by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI, now Department for the Economy) when she was Minister of the department and the scheme offered incentives to businesses if they installed renewable heating systems, such as burning wooden pellets.

She faced strong criticism after it was claimed that she personally campaigned to keep the scheme open, even when senior civil servants warned of the overspend and the Minister responsible, Jonathan Bell, planned on closing it. It remained open for an extra two weeks before it was finally closed. It was also revealed that the Northern Ireland budget would lose £400m over the next 20 years as a result of the failure of the scheme. An independent audit investigated 300 sites and found there were issues at half of them, including 14 cases where there were suspicions of 'serious fraud'.

When senior civil servants suggested the closure of the scheme in September 2015, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (now the Executive Office) pressured the department to keep the scheme open, which is when there was a spike in applications.[41] There were calls for Foster to resign as First Minister after the scandal broke.[42][43]

Northern Ireland political deadlock, 2017–2020

Foster and British Prime Minister Theresa May visit the headquarters of Belleek Pottery in 2018.

On 9 January 2017, McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister due to the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. Under the terms of the power-sharing agreement that created what is now the Executive Office, his resignation also resulted in Foster being removed from office, until Sinn Féin nominates a new deputy First Minister; the party stated that it would not replace McGuinness. No nomination was made before 16 January, resulting in the collapse of the Executive. James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, assumed the powers of the Executive and called for a snap election scheduled for 2 March.[44]

In a statement posted to Facebook, Foster said that she was "disappointed" with McGuinness' decision and condemned it as "not principled": "At a time when we are dealing with Brexit, needing to create more jobs and investing in our health and education system, Northern Ireland needs stability. But because of Sinn Féin's selfish reactions, we now have instability, and I very much regret that." She expressed concern over the possibility of another election less than a year after the previous one, and said "this is not an election of our making", but that "the DUP will always defend unionism and stand up for what is best for Northern Ireland."[45]

In this Northern Ireland Assembly election, held in March 2017, the DUP lost 10 seats, leaving them only one seat and 1,200 votes ahead of Sinn Féin, a result described by the Belfast Telegraph as "catastrophic".[46] The withdrawal of the party whip from Jim Wells in May 2018 left the DUP on 27 seats, the same number as Sinn Féin.[47]

Since McGuinness' resignation, Northern Ireland was in a continuous state of political deadlock until January 2020. One of the key issues was the Irish Language Act, which Sinn Féin insist on and Foster has said that her party will never agree to. With regard to the proposed act, she said "If you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back for more." This remark was widely cited during the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election even though Foster later apologised for it.[48][49]

On 11 January 2020, after the New Decade, New Approach agreement received bipartisan support, the Executive was re-formed with Arlene Foster as First Minister and Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill as deputy first minister.[50]

2017 general election and Conservative-DUP agreement

British Prime Minister Theresa May meets with Foster and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in 2016.

In the 2017 UK general election, the DUP had 10 seats overall, 3 seats ahead of Sinn Féin.[51] With no party having received an outright majority in the UK Parliament, the DUP entered into a confidence and supply agreement to support the government led by the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May.[4] A DUP source said: "The alternative is intolerable. For as long as Corbyn leads Labour, we will ensure there’s a Tory PM."[4] The DUP would later withdraw their support over new Prime Minister Boris Johnson's revised proposal for a deal with the EU.[52]

Brexit and its aftermath

Following a Brexit breakthrough on 8 December 2017, Foster broadly welcomed the deal to progress talks, stating that she was "pleased" to see changes which meant there is "no red line down the Irish Sea".[53]

Both the border issue and opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion are 'red lines' for the eight Unionist MPs.[54] In May 2018, Theresa May stated that abortion is a matter for the devolved Northern Ireland government.[55] However, in 2019, Westminster MPs passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. This legislation would legalise same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnership in Northern Ireland (in line with the rest of the UK) and the liberalisation of abortion laws (in line with abortion rights in England and Wales) if no executive was formed by midnight on 21 October 2019.[56][57] After the Executive was not restored by the deadline, abortion was decriminalised automatically; in December 2019 the British Government passed regulations legalising same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships on 13 January 2020.[58] On 25 March 2020, Northern Ireland published the changes to the abortion law.[59] This law permits abortion on demand for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, since 31 March 2020.[60]

In February 2021 after Brexit had been formally consummated on 31 December 2020, Foster raised a ruckus over the red line down the Irish Sea.[61][62] In a Daily Telegraph op-ed she maintained that the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) had "fundamental flaws" and suggested, in light of the COVID vaccine dispute, that in order to "protect the UK internal market by all legislative means necessary including triggering Article 16, Boris Johnson must now back up those words with tangible actions that protect the integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom."[63]

On 21 February 2021, Foster announced the launch of a judicial review of the NIP as she said it had driven "a coach and horses" through the Act of Union and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which gives legislative effect to the Belfast Agreement. She takes the position that "Fundamental to the Act of Union is unfettered trade throughout the UK," and that the "new regulatory and customs processes required to bring goods into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK" are inimical to the Act of Union. She is joined by various members of the DUP along with Kate Hoey, Jim Allister and Ben Habib. The threat of the EU to reinstitute a hard border if not for the customs barrier in the Irish Sea is a problem.[64] The group was joined by Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble on 24 February, as he wrote a scathing open letter to Boris Johnson prior to the commencement of proceedings. The group have instructed John Larkin QC, the former attorney general of Northern Ireland. Foster was part of discussions involving deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, CDL Michael Gove and Vice-President of the European Commission Maros Sefcovic.[65]

On 29 March 2021, the Johnson government decided not to force a preliminary hearing. A full court case for the Judicial Review was scheduled to be heard the week of 13 May 2021 in the High Court in Belfast.[66]

Resignation as First Minister and DUP leader

Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris meets with First Minister Arlene Foster in March 2021.

On 27 April 2021, there was an internal revolt when 80% of DUP MPs and MLAs signed a vote of no confidence against Foster. Sources close to the party have said that the move was due to Foster becoming "too moderate".[67] The next day, she announced her resignation as leader of the party, and will step down as First Minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June.[68] The following day, Foster announced her resignation in a statement on social media. In the statement she said that she had informed Maurice Morrow, the party Chairman, and Michelle O'Neill of her decision.[69]

Jeffrey Donaldson MP and Edwin Poots MLA stood in an election to replace Foster as Leader of the DUP. On 14 May 2021, Poots was elected as her successor as DUP leader. Poots succeeded Foster as DUP leader on 28 May 2021. Foster resigned as First Minister at 1pm on 14 June 2021[6] and Paul Givan succeeded Foster as First Minister on 17 June 2021.[7] In addition to quitting as First Minister, Foster is rumoured to be planning on quitting the party altogether,[70] though as of 14 June she remains a DUP party member according to the Northern Ireland Assembly website.[71]

Personal life

Arlene Foster has three children with her husband Brian.[72] In 2008, she was recognised as Assembly member of the year at the Women in Public Life Awards.[73] She and her family live on the outskirts of Brookeborough, a village in the east of County Fermanagh.[11][74]

In 2020, Foster sued TV doctor Christian Jessen for defamation over his claim of a relationship with a protection officer.[75] The High Court in Belfast heard that Jessen, a presenter on the Channel 4 show Embarrassing Bodies, who had more than 300,000 Twitter followers, sent an initial tweet on 23 December 2019. It was then retweeted more than 500 times and Jessen had followed up the tweet with other "aggravating" tweets. Mr Justice McAlinden said he would reserve his decision and make a written judgment.[76] [77]

On 27 May 2021, Mr Justice McAlinden ordered Dr Jessen to pay damages of £125,000 and Mrs Foster's legal costs.[78]

See also

  • Demography and politics of Northern Ireland


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Northern Ireland Assembly
Preceded by
Joan Carson
Member of the Legislative Assembly
for Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Political offices
Office suspended
Title last held by
Dermot Nesbitt
Minister for the Environment
Succeeded by
Sammy Wilson
Preceded by
Nigel Dodds
Minister for Enterprise and Investment
Succeeded by
Jonathan Bell
Preceded by
Simon Hamilton
Minister for Finance and Personnel
Succeeded by
Mervyn Storey
Preceded by
Peter Robinson
First Minister of Northern Ireland
Succeeded by
Paul Givan
Party political offices
Preceded by
Peter Robinson
Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party
Succeeded by
Edwin Poots
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