Arlene Foster seems calm and confident as she takes over as First Minister of Northern Ireland. “I am relaxed about it: I am looking forward to it very much,” she says. “I know that it is a huge challenge, particularly in an election year, but in many ways that excites me because it means that you have to deal with issues in the run-up to the election.”
For the past nine years Mrs Foster has provided reassurance as a minister who is competent and in charge of her department. While several other ministers made serious mistakes in their roles, or embarrassed with outspoken comments, Arlene Foster has, in the main, avoided the pitfalls of office. While the Democratic Unionist Party, of which she is now leader, has rotated its other ministers in and out of office, she has been a constant fixture at the top table since 2007. (See cv.)
Given her seven years as the minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, it is no surprise that her main focus as First Minister will be the economy and getting more people into work. Her priorities, she says, are addressing educational underachievement at school, the need to build skills, economic inactivity and improving productivity. While the need during and immediately after the recession was to create jobs – any jobs, almost – that emphasis has shifted to creating top end jobs, says Foster. That means raising skills and reducing the large number of school leavers without basic skills.
“I do think education is one of our biggest challenges moving forward,” she explains. “Yes, we have some very well educated young people in Northern Ireland, but we do need to deal with the other end of the agenda as well.”
What is striking about Mrs Foster’s ambition is that to achieve change there is a need to work across departmental boundaries – a past weakness of a devolved government that brings together ministers from parties that often have stridently different agendas. Foster believes improved co-operation is achievable.
“Whilst I can understand there are some criticisms of departments working in silos, there have been examples of departments working together,” she says. “I hope that the reduction in government departments (from 12 to nine) after the elections in May will help with some of that. We should all think about what is best for Northern Ireland, as opposed to what is best for one particular department. The fact that DEL [the Department for Employment and Learning] and DETI [the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment] will be the one Department for the Economy will mean a more joined-up approach.”
She adds: “I think that if you talk to any political leader in Stormont they will want to create more jobs. People realise that if the economy is doing well, if people are doing well, then things can move along.”
Arlene Foster has quite a list of achievements in her different ministerial roles. As finance minister since May, the great successes have been negotiating a balanced budget and being at the heart of November’s ‘Fresh Start’ agreement, which kept the Executive show on the road. Negotiating the budget, she says, “was a frustrating process” though “not necessarily any more difficult” than she expected. “But it has been slow.”
She says that as enterprise minister the big achievement was beating the Executive’s own job creation targets, despite the recession. Her other proud success was in developing the tourism sector to the point where record numbers of tourists come to Northern Ireland. One of the factors in achieving that was streamlining the structure of tourism promotion, having inherited a framework in which a myriad of different organisations shared responsibility. Part of the strategy to increase tourist numbers was to “engender civic pride, within our own people, about this place as a place to come and visit”. The use of the phrase ‘this place’ is perhaps significant: political differences are so great that there is not even a consensus on names – while unionists use the legally correct term ‘Northern Ireland’, republicans tend instead to refer to ‘the North’.
Differences between unionists and republicans spread across a large number of areas – and are ideological, as well as about flags, parading and the legacy issues of the Troubles, such as historic crimes. The big ideological divide in recent times has been on welfare reform, where the DUP was prepared, reluctantly, to implement the UK Government’s benefits cuts, but Sinn Fein was determined to provide top-ups to mitigate or avoid cuts.
“We do come from completely different standpoints in terms of economic development,” says the First Minister. “That came to the fore through the welfare reform debate, around should we divert money into welfare, as opposed to make the economy more productive. I think that debate will continue into the next mandate and I hope it will continue in a mature way. It is important to have that debate, not just to have one party going in one direction and one party moving in the other direction.
“One of the incredible things is that, given we do come from such diverse backgrounds right across the spectrum, we have over these past few administrations been able to agree a Programme for Government and put the economy at the heart of that Programme for Government. Yes, we may have different ideas about how we should grow the economy and what we need to do, but overall we have been determined to make things work. I hope we shall be able to launch the next mandate with the same sort of determination.”
The Northern Ireland Executive – in particular the Executive that takes office after May’s elections – must deal with tough challenges. Cutting corporation tax to match that of the Irish Republic’s 12.5% is scheduled for April 2018 and Foster is confident this will happen as planned. But it will cost Northern Ireland a possible £325m in central government grant each year in order to conform with EU state aid rules.
In addition, Northern Ireland has other exceptional costs to grapple with. According to a report from former England chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson, the province has too many hospitals. It also has thousands of surplus school places, low tuition fees for university students, an expensive social housing system, no prescription charges and free public transport for the over 60s. It seems as if Northern Ireland expects devolution should provide the best of everything and the worst of nothing. So does Foster believe the Executive can take the difficult decisions?
“This is a challenge for us as politicians: engaging more with the big issues,” she says. “I believe that the constitutional issues are not really in people’s minds on a day to day basis. People are more concerned about those issues that we are talking about – like health waiting lists, educational under-achievement, all of those issues. So let’s have a conversation about those issues, rather than dealing with, frankly, things from the past. Which is better – having a local hospital with few services, or having a centre of excellence which can change people’s lives?”
Foster believes that one lesson to be learnt from the stalemate of the last year is to tackle the difficult challenges soon after the May elections. “It’s early in the mandate that we need to tackle these sorts of things, because it’s usually at the end of a mandate that these issues don’t get tackled,” she explains. “I’m not going to promise the sun, moon and the stars. There has to be a willingness from everybody to look at the reality.”
The First Minister is clear that the corporation tax rate cut is essential to boost the economy. “It’s hugely important and we as a political party have stayed at the forefront of this debate,” she says. “We absolutely believe this is the one tool that can make a step-change in the economy. It is out there in 2018 to give us time to deal with issues such as skill development, selling ourselves so that foreign direct investors will come and see what we have to offer. We do now have a lead-in time and that will allow us the chance to build up our proposition. I know that for this to work we have to have the appropriate level of skills available for the companies that come.”
There have been campaigns to cut Air Passenger Duty and VAT for the hospitality industry to assist Northern Ireland compete with the Republic. But Mrs Foster says she is not looking for other freedoms on tax policy from the UK Treasury. “We really need to focus on corporation tax, to make sure we have the infrastructure to deal with that, in terms of skills, knowledge base, and see how that rolls out,” she says. “If we went off looking for different tax incentives the Treasury would say hold on, you haven’t deal with the one that is on offer. But we should take advantage of the tax advantages that we get as part of the UK, for example film and tv tax incentives, which we have made good use of actually.”
Foster is clear that political stability is also central to making Northern Ireland an attractive business location. A sustainable budget is at the heart of this, making clear to investors that the Executive is able to properly manage its affairs. “Devolution, if it is to mean anything, is to have policies that are appropriate to the region,” she adds. The Northern Ireland Jobs Fund, which provides financial help to businesses to create employment, is one example of this, another is Small Business Rate Relief and a third is the air route development fund to improve Northern Ireland’s transport connectivity.
High welfare dependency and widespread economic inactivity may also need a different approach in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain. While the economic inactivity rate is 21.9% in the UK as a whole, it is 27.0% in Northern Ireland. “That economic inactivity piece has stubbornly stayed with us for a long time – I do know that it is a legacy of where we were in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but still we should be trying to deal with that issue in a very proactive way as we go into the third mandate in terms of devolution,” says Foster.
Ultimately, it is moving the political conversation on from the Troubles and its legacies and onto the 21st Century that is the big challenge for Arlene Foster. There is optimism in Northern Ireland that she may be the one political leader who could, as First Minister, achieve that.