by Ruth Dudley Edwards
While Theresa May takes centre stage this week, there are two women on whom her political future depends.
In Scotland, it is leader of the Scottish Tories Ruth Davidson.
In Northern Ireland, it is the far less familiar Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party – the party with which Mrs May must do a deal if she is to govern Britain.
While Theresa May takes centre stage this week, DUP leader Arlene Foster is one of the women on whom her political future depends
So who is Arlene Foster and what will an alliance with the DUP mean for the Tories?
Are criticisms of its attitude to gay rights and its anti-liberal stance on social issues justified?
Arlene Kelly – as she was then – grew up on a small farm in the village of Rosslea in beautiful County Fermanagh with two older sisters and a younger brother.
Born in July 1970, the year after the Troubles began, it was a happy childhood – at least until she was eight.
One evening she was in the kitchen with her mother while her father, a policeman who ran the farm as a sideline, had gone out to lock up the cattle.
There were gunshots.
Her mother froze, but Arlene didn’t understand the significance of the sounds until her father came in crawling on all fours with blood streaming from his head. The IRA’s war on Ulster Protestants had come to their home.
A former practicing solicitor, Foster joined the DUP in 2004 after serving as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly
Her father survived, but the family left Rosslea. The only member of her family to pass the 11+, Foster attended grammar school in Enniskillen. But the violence hadn’t gone away.
She was 16 when the IRA bombed her school bus, aiming to kill the driver, a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment. The girl Arlene was sitting next to was badly injured.
The same year, the SAS shot dead Seamus McElwaine, who had tried to kill her father, as he was preparing to ambush an army patrol.
Martin McGuinness – with whom she would later work in the Northern Ireland Assembly – described him a ‘freedom fighter murdered by British terrorists’.
The following year, the IRA killed 12 on Remembrance Day in Enniskillen. These are the bitter experiences that marked Arlene Foster, now 46, and have given her that famous hard edge.
Arlene Foster went to Queen’s University Belfast to study law, joined the Young Unionist Association, practised as a solicitor and became a rising star in the Ulster Unionist Party. In 1995 she married Brian Foster, a policeman, and they have three children.
She was a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly from 2003, but in 2004 jumped ship to the Reverend Ian Paisley’s hard-line DUP because she believed it to be tougher in defence of victims and the interests of the police.
Foster was a practising member of the Church of Ireland and by DUP standards socially liberal, and wholly opposed to paramilitaries of any kind.
She averted her eyes from the nastier side of her party and got on well with Paisley who in 2007 became ‘respectable’ when he agreed to share power with Sinn Fein.
Under him and her mentor, Paisley’s successor Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster rose rapidly, and was the obvious choice to follow Robinson in December 2015.
The DUP has come a long way since it was the creature of Ian Paisley at his worst, and Arlene Foster is set on rooting out bigotry in the party
It was therefore a blow when the BBC exposed a scandal over a ‘green’ scheme known as the Renewable Heating Incentive which had been implemented so incompetently that it actually paid businesses enormous sums to waste energy – costing the taxpayer £490million.
She failed to take responsibility, own up and grovel, and she and her party suffered in the Assembly election the following year.
Foster endured months of humiliation, but she learned her lesson and led her party into the general election and came up trumps.
Now she has been made an offer by Theresa May that she can’t refuse. Any deal will be strictly on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis, and she will not be making unreasonable demands, although she is anxious to protect social care for the elderly.
The DUP has come a long way since it was the creature of Ian Paisley at his worst, and Arlene Foster is set on rooting out bigotry. She has gay friends and is no homophobe.
Her DUP is intensely patriotic and will drive a tough bargain – and a ‘soft(er) Brexit’ is high on the agenda to do with border issues with the Republic.
As for concerns being expressed about the future of peace process if the DUP aligns itself with the Tory government, ignore them. There’s no appetite among the Northern Irish people for a return to violence.