THE First Minister Arlene Foster says her three main goals in office are increased employment, more support for the most vulnerable in our society and instilling hope in young people for the future of their country.
In a wide ranging interview with the Fermanagh Herald to mark her first month in office, the 45-year-old took time out from her busy schedule in Enniskillen on Friday to reflect on the past few weeks and her plans for the months ahead in the run up to and after May’s Assembly elections.
Since taking office as DUP leader in December and First Minister on January 11th, Mrs Foster has been greatly encouraged by the many messages of goodwill she has received from all sides.
“Coming from Fermanagh and as everyone knows I love this place and would never leave it, the most encouraging part for me has been that people, regardless of their background, are coming up to me and saying how proud they are of me being from here. That has been very encouraging because these people are nationalists, unionists and those from the Republic.”
Despite being more in demand than ever before in her new role as leader of the country, the mother-of-three says she is managing the family life and work balance well.
“It’s been hectic. I made a commitment when I came into this job that I wanted to get out and about meeting people. I’m really enjoying that end of it and I’ve been all over the place. The greatest fun has been going into primary schools and meeting children.
“It’s a challenge at times like now when it’s half-term and all working mums are trying to balance the kids being at home with work commitments.”
While some concerns have been expressed about the image of Enniskillen town centre and its diverse range of outlets, the First Minister says independent traders are key to its success.
“As I have gone around towns across Northern Ireland since taking on this role, I’ve realised that Enniskilen is actually one of our nicest town centres. I absolutely think that we need to push ahead with the works in the centre of town.
“I think that we still have a good mix of independent retail shops in Enniskillen and that’s the way I would like it to remain. ”
The proposed bypass for Enniskillen is aimed at reducing traffic congestion in the town but some retailers fear that it could have a negative impact on their businesses. Ms Foster believes that it’s all a question of balance.
“When you speak to people in towns where bypasses have been put in, they would say that they don’t have any passing trade now and the towns have died on their feet. On the other hand if you ask motorists who use it they’re very happy at not being held up so it’s a matter of balancing those two arguments.”
With fears mounting over increased rural crime in the county, the First Minister said she awaits with the interest the upcoming statistics from the PSNI in relation to what is happening on the ground.
“I think a lot of it is to do with perception and if people feel that there is more crime then they become afraid. It only takes one burglary, as happened up in Lisnaskea recently and which was an awful event, to cause real fear.”
Recent reports in this newspaper have also highlighted the decline in rural GPs in Fermanagh but Mrs Foster believes there are a lot of positives in terms of local healthcare.
“If you find a GP who is willing to come to Fermanagh and make their home here, they’ll never regret it because we have great schools and good lifestyles along with very encouraging and supportive people.”
Mrs Foster along with Lord Morrow are the confirmed DUP candidates for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. She is already out and about on the election trail and looking forward to the campaign ahead of the vote in May.
“I’ve come into this job at the turn of the year and some people have said to me that I don’t have much time. I’m actually looking forward to that as it gives me a chance to set out where I want to see Northern Ireland going to and what the vision is and then see what the reaction of the people is to that. The campaign has already started since I’m getting out and about now and hearing what people have to say.”
The First Minister is also keeping a close eye on events in the Republic as voters there go to the polls next week.
“It’s certainly of interest as it’s unusual to have both elections so close together. Particularly of interest will be the performance of Sinn Fein because opinion polls are one thing as we learned at last year’s General Election. Enda Kenny and I have a very good working relationship and we have met frequently on the North-South Ministerial Council. He remains respectful of our jurisdiction as I am of his position. I think that is the way we should go forward.”
Despite recent comparisons on their shared dress sense, Mrs Foster is also looking forward to working with her fellow female First Minister in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon.
“We haven’t had much interaction yet but we will have on shared issues such as the Brexit referendum date. Scottish and Northern Irish people have a very strong affinity so I’m very much looking forward to working with Nicola. I might add that she is only two days younger than me so we very nearly shared a birthday as well as everything else! It seems that 1970 was a good year for First Ministers.”
Mrs Foster says she hopes to make people, both nationalists and unionists, proud to be from Northern Ireland with education and health services that meet their needs.
“When I was growing up there wasn’t much hope about so I want to give our young people confidence that they can remain here for their education and jobs.
In that respect I want to see increased confidence and more hope in this place. Also I want to see more support for the most vulnerable in our society, whether they’re young teenagers going through difficult times or older people needing increased care.”
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