In Depth

Arlene Foster: the first woman set to lead the DUP

Party's first female leader has been described as 'charming', technocratic' and Thatcheresque

The Democratic Unionist Party is poised to formally elect Arlene Foster as its first female party leader on Thursday evening.

Having held several high-profile posts in Northern Irish politics, Foster is described as "personally charming" and has long been tipped for Stormont's top job.

Born Arlene Kelly in Roslea in 1970, she encountered the horrors of 'the Troubles' first hand as a youngster, says the BBC. When she was eight years old, her father, a part-time policeman, was shot by the IRA at the family farm.

"They shot him in the head as he was closing in the cattle," she later told the Sunday Tribune. "He came crawling into the house, blood streaming down his face."

When she was a teenager in 1988, a bomb exploded under her school bus, which was being driven by a part-time Ulster Defence Regiment soldier. The Guardian says the County Fermanagh community in which she grew up "felt under existential threat".

Foster attended Queen's University Belfast, where she studied law and chaired the Ulster Unionist Association. An opinionated figure from early in her life, she strongly opposed the Good Friday agreement in 1998.

In 2003, she was elected Member of the Legislative Assembly for Fermanagh and South Tyrone for the Ulster Unionist Party and quickly captured the imagination. A senior UUP figure told Belfast Telegraph journalist Alex Kane: "Watch that girl, Alex, and mark my words, she is going to be the first woman leader of this party. She has learned a lot from the likes of Thatcher when it comes to dealing with men in politics."

But within weeks she defected to the DUP, where she enjoyed a rapid rise. She was appointed environment minister and then minister for enterprise, trade and investment.

When Peter Robinson was forced to temporarily stand aside as first minister, he appointed her to stand in for him. Even once he returned to the fray, she remained a high-profile figure, accompanying him to meetings and frequently representing the party in the media.

In June this year she took over at the finance ministry, before being chosen to lead the party she has served. She has already announced that her style of leadership will be different to that of Robinson.

"By the very nature of being a different person and a different gender I will have a different style there is no doubt about it," she said last week.

The Northern Ireland paper News Letter says Foster is a "fairly technocratic politician; largely getting on with the business of government, rather than a Boris Johnson or Sammy Wilson figure who is constantly wading into big, ideological debates".

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