Arlene Foster has said she is “thrilled and delighted” to have been made a dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
The ex DUP leader, who was the first woman appointed First Minister in Northern Ireland, said receiving a damehood in the Platinum Jubilee year made it all the more special.
Dame Arlene, who represented the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone as a Stormont Assembly member for 18 years before leaving electoral politics last year, is the most high-profile name among 100 honours recipients from Northern Ireland.
Patricia Donnelly, who ran Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccination programme during the pandemic, has been made an OBE while the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order Reverend Mervyn Gibson becomes an MBE.
Abortion reform campaigner Sarah Ewart is made an OBE. Ms Ewart pressed for the liberalisation of Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws after being denied a termination in the region following a diagnosis that her unborn child would die in the womb or shortly after birth.
Ireland’s most capped international hockey player Shirley McCay, from Co Tyrone, is made an MBE, as is business expert Aodhan Connolly, who articulated the concerns of Northern Ireland traders through the Brexit process.
Dame Arlene, 51, who has been honoured for political and public service, has long been a passionate supporter of the Royal family.
She said: “As a big royalist, it’s a huge honour to receive this damehood in the 70th year of Her Majesty’s reign.
“But also it’s an honour for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the place which I love and which I represented for 18 years and indeed for the whole of Northern Ireland because the citation talks about the fact that I was the first female to take the role of First Minister, so I’m really, really pleased as you can imagine, I’m delighted.
“This is the Platinum Jubilee year and Her Majesty the Queen has given so much devotion and service to the country, so to receive it in her Platinum Jubilee year is really special for me. It’s a real thrill for me.
“I was hugely surprised and really delighted to receive this honour from Her Majesty in this very special year.”
Dame Arlene’s honour comes just over a year after she was forced to resign as DUP leader and First Minister after an internal party revolt.
“All things happen for a reason, I’m very clear about that. And whilst of course I wouldn’t have chosen the manner of my departure, I have embraced the new opportunities and I have moved on and hopefully I’ll be able to do new and different things now in the coming years.”
The former solicitor from Rosslea in Co Fermanagh survived two horrific childhood experiences of IRA violence. She spent her early political career in the Ulster Unionist Party before defecting to the DUP in protest at the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the leadership of then UUP leader David Trimble.
Dame Arlene still lives in Co Fermanagh with her husband and three children.
“The family are delighted and of course it’s for them as well, because they have been through all of those 18 years with me as a public representative, representing Fermanagh and South Tyrone, so it’s lovely for them as well,” she said.
Since leaving politics, Dame Arlene has embraced several new challenges, including a role as a TV presenter on GB News.
“I call it a portfolio approach,” she said.
“I’m doing some media work with GB news. I’m also writing, I’m doing some speaking events and I’m also involved in a pro-Union movement as well because obviously, if something brings you into politics, you don’t just leave it behind when you leave local politics. So I’ve been involved in a new pro-Union movement as well.”
However, she insists she is “much too young” to be thinking about penning an autobiography.
On whether she expects people to call her by her new title, she says: “I’ll always be Arlene from Fermanagh.”
Patricia Donnelly described receiving the letter with the news as “really very emotional”.
She added: “It is an honour, it is a privilege and, particularly in the jubilee year, it is appreciated. And I realise that it is not just about me, it was about the vaccination programme and it represented all that work, so I do feel a sense of responsibility in that way.
“It is a team effort, it was that army of people who did that superhuman job and continue to do it.
“None of us who have been involved in it do it for the honours, but when they come it is just the icing and the cherry on the cake. It’s really rather wonderful.”
Aodhan Connolly insisted his MBE for services to the economy was an acknowledgment of the work put in by all members of the working group, rather than solely an accolade for himself.
He said: “I am delighted to receive this honour. This award is as much a recognition of the collective work and dedication of the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group as it is for me personally.
“Their willingness to work in a spirit of collegiate cooperation made all the difference when we took the messages of the NI business community to the UK, European and world stage.
“I hope to continue that same spirit of cooperation as I represent Northern Ireland in my new role as director of the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels.”
Rev Gibson, a former RUC Special Branch officer, recently led celebrations for Northern Ireland’s centenary at an Orange Order event in Belfast attended by around 100,000 people. He was a member of the police for nearly two decades.
Subsequently he became a Presbyterian minister, working in East Belfast.
He said: “I am very honoured and very humbled by it, I have to say. It is just a surprise, at the end of the day.
“When the letter comes through and you open it and read it, you sort of think – is this a joke from a friend?”
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