Following her election as DUP leader, I sat down with Arlene Foster to talk with her about how she felt about becoming the party leader, how she views her relationships with Sinn Fein and the UUP and how she views herself becoming the first woman to lead the party.
I began by asking Arlene how she felt about becoming the DUP leader so unexpectedly, when until just 10 days ago most of us thought it would be Nigel Dodds.
Foster told me that she feels very energised in taking up the post of leader and she is really looking forward to taking her message out to the people of Northern Ireland as party leader and First Minister.
As she spoke I wondered about how much time she would have to do all of this as we are just 5 months out from an assembly election, I asked her about this and could she demonstrate her vision in such a short period of time?
In terms of the message it will be one of hope for the future, trying to say to young people regardless of their background or indeed class or creed…that you can build a future in Northern Ireland and one that is a positive one, not one that is second best but one that is good for you and good for your family.
I wanted to know how being the victim of violence in the past has shaped the person and politician she is today and I asked about how she has been able to use these experiences.
Foster calmly responded that she does not actually put what happened to her aside, but instead of being overcome by anger about it, those experiences motivate her to build a better Northern Ireland and drives her to ensure that younger generations do not have to go through the same thing.
Following on from this I wanted to know about her relationship with Sinn Fein. I referenced a recent interview that Martin McGuinness gave to the The Journal.ie saying he could get along with Arlene. In the past we have seen the “Chuckle Brothers” and then “a battle a day,” how would she characterise her relationship with Sinn Fein?
The new DUP leader wouldn’t place labels on her relationship with Sinn Fein, but openly says that she has been working with them since 2007 and that while at times it is challenging, she feels that she cannot live in the past and that she has to do what is right for Northern Ireland.
I was intrigued to know about another relationship; the one with her counterpart, Mike Nesbitt and the UUP. I put it to her that the UUP were on the way up and could take seats off the DUP.
Arlene very quickly rebutted and said that the narrative that the UUP is on the rebound “doesn’t bare any relation to reality” and if you look at most of the results from the Westminster election, the UUP actually did badly, pointing out a poor result in Strangford.
Could she beat Mike Nesbitt?
Oh gosh absolutely and I say that not from any degree of arrogance but from the fact of confidence in the vision of the DUP moving forward.
As we wrapped up, I noticed that somebody had given Arlene a book on Angela Merkel and would she model herself on leaders like her or Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland.
For Arlene, she told me that growing up Margaret Thatcher was the big influence as she dominated the UK political scene during the 1980s, but she recognises that even in her own family it isn’t remarked upon that she is a senior politician and she hopes that other younger women can look at her in the role of First Minister and think that they could pursue a successful career in politics.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs