Northern Ireland news

Profile: Unflappable Arlene Foster thrived as she rose to challenges of coronavirus

We waited three years for the Assembly's return and the new administration at Stormont had only got itself in place when it was faced with dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Six months have passed since the New Decade New Approach Deal saw Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill lead the new Executive. Allison Morris assesses how Arlene Foster has performed.

DUP Leader Arlene Foster. Picture by Hugh Russell.

Arlene Foster was at one stage considered irreparably damaged as a political leader, not just by the RHI scandal but the continued undermining of her position by the old guard within her own party.

How she must have empathised with the plight of former prime minister Theresa May.

Given a job that at the time no one else wanted, left to test public opinion on unpopular policy, undermined at every turn by a cabal of privileged and powerful men, before being driven out of her office when no longer needed.

There were bets being taken on how long her leadership would last, while elements within her own party briefed against her to sections of the media.

And then came Covid - a crisis that no one wanted - and yet it is hard to imagine any other member of the DUP who could have handled it as well as Mrs Foster did in a leadership position.

No more was she the defensive and seemingly continually irritated political leader of old, but a more confident, compassionate, politician whose words brought reassurance to many.

That the RHI inquiry findings were delivered at the start of the pandemic meant they were much lower down the news agenda that they would have been otherwise.

That the government reformed in January and no other party wanted to upset the fledgling administration in a time of crisis also helped.

But there was also an unflappable air about her new style of leadership - if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs - and keep her head she did.

There was also a new found willingness to work with her Sinn Féin partner in government and make things work to save lives, no nobler or more urgent a cause.

We got the impression that Arlene Foster thrived in such circumstances, to find yourself at the helm during a global pandemic would have crumbled a less committed politician.

How long though will this honeymoon last?

The crisis over Michelle O'Neill's attendance at Bobby Storey's funeral was never going to collapse the assembly, the DUP have already said they will not walk away at a time of urgent need.

But it has damaged relations.

The DUPs response seemed to be pushed by the party's Westminster team and not by the leader, who seems keen not to throw away the achievements and relationships built up at a time of crisis.

However, there may be trouble ahead.

Take away crisis management and there are few policies Sinn Féin and the DUP agree on.

Compromise may be required but that has never been a DUP strong suit.

A betrayal from Boris Johnson in terms of an Irish sea border and a different regulatory regime for Northern Ireland will damage the DUP who campaigned for Brexit .

Add to this an economic downturn from coronavirus and Arlene Foster is going to have to find a way to pick her battles, while still retaining the confidence of unionist voters.

This will not come easy to a leader who has always acted instinctively in accordance with her own personally held beliefs, but who will now to prioritise when it comes to key political decisions.

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