IT IS now ten years since DUP Arlene Foster sent shockwaves through local politics when she defected from the UUP to join what was, in local terms at least, very much the junior partner in Fermanagh unionism
The DETI (Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment) Minister and local Assembly member, who hails from near Roslea, candidly looks back on the last ten years, from her position as councillor, to MLA to DETI minister and acting First Minister.
“I became an MLA in November 2003 which was a very difficult time in the UUP. It was a very traumatic time personally for me, because I had always been an Ulster Unionist, even in Queen’s University, and I felt that I had to go at that time which was a very difficult decision but one I don’t regret.
“Former party members were very hostile when I left and I can understand that, some people were very disappointed and others were aggressive. So you had a whole range of attitudes and a few today are still hostile with me.”
The MLA said one of her politics highlights was being asked to be the minister of environment which was followed be her current role, since she has been in since the recession erupted in 2007.
She added: “It has been a very empowering position to be in because it allows me to talk positively about a place I love, Northern Ireland, and to sell it across the world as a place to invest in.
“It’s a very challenging few years but I now honestly believe we are turning a corner and so I am very grateful for being allowed to stay in this position.”
Asked about her power-sharing role with Sinn Fein, the minister admits that it’s been one of the biggest challenges she has faced during her time in Stormont.
“Sinn Fein has a different view in relation to a lot of issues, but you work on and these issues and any you fundamentally disagree with, you just have to accept you will fundamentally disagree on them.
“I have to work with them, I don’t particularly like it, but I get on with it. I don’t shy away from the fact that I reject their analysis of what went on over the last 40 years – they can’t shy away from the fact there was a terrorist campaign. I have to accept that people vote for them. That’s one of the biggest challenges.”
Touching on the unemployment rate in Fermanagh, which is one of the highest in the North, the mother-of-three believes the county has a lot of potential, saying the county has turned a corner.
She continued: : “I think if look at the unemployment statistics for Fermanagh they tell their own story, and they are not as people may perceive to be amongst the highest, they are amongst the lowest in Northern Ireland.
“I think a lot of people at the time of the whole Sean Quinn issue felt that Quinns was going to go out of business and jobs would be lost but, despite the fact that they are being attack in a disgraceful way, the job loses have been minimal and I think that needs to be recognised.”
When it comes to the controversy surrounding fracking, the MLA hit out at the protesters, accusing them of “scaremongering” in their “desperate” attempts to create “fear in the community”.
She highlighted the potential positives of fracking in Fermanagh, and, if it is environmentally safe, the jobs and investment it could bring locally.
“I am quite excited about the prospects that it might hold for Fermanagh but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it has to be completed in a environmentally regulatory safe way.
“The licence has been granted for exploration and I think it’s right we should explore, if it can be done in an environmentally safe way because if it can then what you have is not only a source of energy in the form of shale gas, but shale gas can be turned into methanol which can be used in the manufacture of plastics so what you are doing is giving a new indutrial focus to the area.
“We have to take into account the special geological features we have in Fermanagh and a number of people I respect have said to me that they are concerned about the water table in Fermanagh and need to be reassured that this is the safe thing to do.
“What I don’t respect is people who are using this for another reason and I do note that some of the people involved in the protests are first of all not from anywhere near Fermanagh – they are from America – they use scare stories to inform people instead of scientific fact and I think that’s very wrong.
“These protesters use scare stories to inform people instead of scientific fact and I think that’s very wrong.
“If people are to make up their own minds they must do with the full evidence in front of them and not scare stories. I do get very worried that people with a political agenda who are never going to agree to fracking are pedalling a particular point of view and not dealing with the reality of the situation which is, if it can be carried out this way, then it could be a game changer for Fermanagh.
“I’m not surprised by the scaremongering stories because they are getting more and more desperate. They are trying to create fear in the community and I get angry because it causes anxiety to people. We can’t have a shut door in Fermanagh.”
Mum to 13-year-old Sarah, George, 11 and seven-year-old Ben, she says her role reversal between minister and mum is very rewarding and helps her to switch off from the world of politics.
Some of her career highlights have included her time as acting First Minister in 2010, becoming a DETI minister and, of course, meeting US President Barack Obama, which she described as a very “surreal” time.
When asked if there is a possibility that a Fermanagh woman could take up the role of the First Minister, she admits that it’s a position that will not be free for quite some time.