December 9, 2015 / 5:59 PM / 3 years ago

Northern Ireland government to get first female leader

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland Finance Minister Arlene Foster is set to become the first female leader of the British province in the New Year after she was left unchallenged on Wednesday as the nominee to head the region’s largest party.

Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party speaks to the media as she arrives at parliament buildings on the Stormont estate, in Belfast, September 8, 2015. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

    Foster becomes the third leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) founded by the firebrand preacher Ian Paisley in 1971 at the height of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

    She will serve alongside Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister and a former commander of the Irish Republican Army, which shot but failed to kill her father when she was 8.

Foster told Reuters in an interview last month that her relations with McGuinness’ Sinn Fein party were “workmanlike”.   

Northern Ireland’s parties share power in a compulsory coalition under a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of sectarian violence.

Over 3,600 died in a conflict in which Catholic Irish militants seeking to unite the province with the Republic of Ireland fought the British Army and Protestant pro-British paramilitaries.

First Minister Peter Robinson on Wednesday said Foster was the only nominee to replace him as DUP leader and that she would be confirmed as party chief in a vote on Dec 17. Foster would then replace him as First Minister on Jan. 11.

    “I am very humbled about the amount of support I have received from colleagues in the party in recent days,” Foster told BBC Radio Ulster. “I do realize that this is a huge challenge in front of me, I am up for that challenge.”

A lawyer and close confidant of Robinson, Foster twice briefly assumed the role of First Minister when he stood aside for personal reasons in 2010 and during a political crisis in September.

Foster was briefly a member of the more liberal Ulster Unionist Party when she was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2003.

Foster was one of a new generation of politicians who assumed office after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but she was affected profoundly by Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

She was 8 when her father, a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary police reserve survived being shot in the head by the IRA on the family farm.

When she was 17, Foster survived an IRA bomb attack on her school bus which was being driven by a part time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment of the British Army.

Reporting by Ian Graham; Editing by Conor Humphries and Richard Balmforth

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