The Democratic Unionist leader, Arlene Foster, has been appointed Northern Ireland’s new first minister, becoming the first woman to hold one of the power-sharing executive’s two top jobs.
Her elevation, replacing the retiring Peter Robinson, was confirmed during the first assembly sitting of the new year at Parliament Buildings in Belfast. The 45-year-old lawyer, who representsFermanagh and South Tyrone, had already replaced Robinson as leader of the region’s largest political party, the DUP.
Robinson, 67, announced his intention to retire from frontline politics last November, days after signing a political deal with Sinn Féin and the British and Irish governments to stabilise the tottering administration. The transition of power has been smooth, with Foster facing no challengers from within the DUP, and assuming office alongside the long-serving Sinn Féin deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness.
In his farewell speech at Stormont on Monday, Robinson told the assembly that “after centuries of division, we had to outlive the growing pains of learning to work together, fashion shared policies, and create a more inclusive society”. He added: “I hereby resign the office of first minister with confidence that the political institutions we have together created will be here for generations to come.”
Foster paid tribute to Robinson, admitting she had big shoes to fill. “Three minutes cannot do justice to the career of the person who has been the most astute unionist political leader of this, or for that matter any, era in Northern Ireland’s history. But when the history of this time comes to be written, his leadership will define this period. In his time he has helped redraw the unionist political map and ensured a better future for Northern Ireland in the most challenging of circumstances.”
She told a packed assembly chamber she was “tired of Stormont being a watchword for arguing and bickering. That’s not why our people elected us. They did so to provide a better future for us all. I will do all I can to change the political culture of this place but I can’t change that alone. We can only do it by working together.
“I know from experience it won’t be easy. Real change never is. But I ask today that we find a new way of doing business, one that places a greater premium on consensus than on conflict.”
Mike Nesbitt, whose Ulster Unionist party pulled out of the power-sharing executive in the wake of the IRA-linked murder of a man in Belfast last August, offered congratulations on her “personal achievement”, but warned of difficult times ahead. “Mrs Foster has the baton and we await to see what sort of music she can squeeze out of the discordant executive,” he said.
Sinn Féin’s education minister, John O’Dowd, said Foster would require determination to face down the enemies of the peace process and spoke of the loneliness of leadership. He told MLAs: “There are many enemies of the peace process in society and all do not wear balaclavas.”
Foster’s DUP colleagues described her “feisty and fiery” personality but hailed her political mind and drive as well as her love for Northern Ireland. The employment minister, Stephen Farry, who attended Queen’s University in Belfast when Foster was studying law during the turbulent 1980s, described her appointment as historic.
The independent MLA Clare Sugden said she hoped young women would be inspired by Foster, whom she described as a great politician. “This is an incredible day. I am inspired and I hope all young women will be inspired,” she said.
Although there has been a generational shift in politics, said John McAllister, the MLA for South Down, the new first minister and her deputy face some old problems. He said: “The challenge is to end the us and them in our politics and our society.”
The new first minister caused controversy over the weekend by stating that she would not be travelling to Dublin for the official centenary celebrations of the Easter rising – the 1916 rebellion against British rule. Republicans criticised her decision, saying it showed a narrowness in outlook.
This article was written by Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent, and agencies, for theguardian.com on Monday 11th January 2016 13.59 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010