Arlene Foster on Women, Leadership and Peacebuilding

arlene2First Minister Arlene Foster delivered the fourth Harri Holkeri Lecture yesterday evening on ‘Women, Leadership and Peacebuilding’ at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice’s Spring Festival at Queen’s.

Holkeri was a Prime Minister of Finland and took part in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Finnish Embassy.

The Festival continues this week, concluding with a lecture by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern on ‘Reflections on Peace in a Changed Ireland’ on 31 May.

In a largely biographical lecture, Foster emphasized the importance of Brownies and Girl Guides in her own development as a leader. She also named three women that she looked up to as inspirational leaders: former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II, and Maud Kells, the 76-year-old missionary midwife who was survived a shooting by bandits in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A small group of pro-choice protestors stood outside of the event, calling on Foster to show ‘leadership’ by supporting women’s right to choose. Foster – who like most of her Democratic Unionist colleagues opposes abortion – was asked about this issue during the question and answer session. But she refused to be drawn into debate, saying that ‘both sides’ should use more respectful language and try to understand each other’s positions better.

Foster’s lecture was heavier on leadership than on peacebuilding – and she was also quick to say that she thought ‘good leadership transcends masculine/feminine labels.’ She said:

‘Effective leaders, male or female, seek to implement their visions, vary their behaviours contingent upon situational requirements and in general grapple successfully with the ever-changing and complex internal and external demands up on their organization.’

She related how she had a deep sense of duty instilled in her by her father, who was in the police. It was shortly after his attempted murder by the IRA that she joined the Brownies in Lisnaskea. ‘This helped at a difficult time in my formative years,’ and provided her with friendships, confidence and self-esteem.

Foster spoke briefly about why she singled out Thatcher, the Queen, and Kells as inspirational leaders, noting that Thatcher thrived ‘in a man’s world’ of the 1980s, praising the Queen’s ‘humility,’ and emphasizing Kells’ ‘courage’.

Unlike Thatcher or the Queen, Kells might not be a predictable choice for Foster. Foster said: ‘She is someone I would want to emulate. She shows her leadership through example, commitment, belief and ambition.’

In her introductory remarks, the Finnish Ambassador to the UK, Paivi Luostarinen, invoked the legacy of UN Resolution 1325, which calls for the inclusion of gendered experiences and perspectives in peacebuilding initiatives. This resolution has been credited with contributing to greater inclusion for women in peace processes throughout the world – though the UK’s national action plans on UNR 1325 have consistently excluded Northern Ireland, focusing rather on international peacekeeping.

Foster was also asked about improving women’s representation in Northern Ireland politics. Foster said that it was crucial for women to contest seats that were ‘winnable’, and said that she felt that she had not been personally discriminated against during her political career.

Many countries have gender quotas which have improved women’s representation in politics – though these have been thus-far ruled out in Northern Ireland (see Prof Yvonne Galligan’s research on how gender quotas have been shown to improve the competency of candidates of both genders).

Disclaimer: I am a research fellow in the Institute.