Ex-environment minister Sam Foster, Ulster Unionist, dies aged 82

BBC News NI Political Editor Mark Devenport looks back at the political career of Sam Foster (pictured)

The former Northern Ireland environment minister, Sam Foster, has died.

The Ulster Unionist, who was 82, represented Fermanagh in the assembly and served as a minister at Stormont between 1999 and 2002.

He was a former chairman of Fermanagh District Council and served as a major in the Ulster Defence Regiment.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said he was proud to have known Mr Foster, whom he described as a "huge figure in Fermanagh unionism".

"It is a mark of Sam that he was able to gain the respect of political friend and foe alike," he said.

"He never held personal grudges and sought to find agreement rather than create strife. He rose to high office but never forgot his roots and always remained at heart a Fermanagh man.

'Great dignity'

Quietly spoken but firm in his opinions, Sam Foster has been described as a man of courtesy and integrity by politicians from across the spectrum.

In 1987, Mr Foster was on the scene of the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing and pulled survivors from the rubble immediately after the IRA attack.

A decade later as chairman of Fermanagh Council he welcomed the then Taoiseach John Bruton despite criticism from the DUP.

Mr Foster had Parkinson's disease and retired from the assembly in 2003, but retained a keen interest in current affairs, welcoming the G8 summit when world leaders visited his beloved Fermanagh last summer.

"Sam was the living embodiment of a loyal Ulster Unionist who served his country and his party faithfully for many decades and was held in the highest of esteem by all."

Former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Empey said Mr Foster had confronted illness with "great dignity and fortitude".

He added: "The one word that sums Sam up is loyalty.

"Fermanagh has lost a great unionist today."

Another former party leader, Tom Elliott, ‏said Mr Foster had been a "long-standing, faithful and loyal member" of the party.

Mr Foster took over as environment minister in 1999 during the era of stop-start devolution.

He visited Belfast's Black Mountain together with the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, and attended a peace rally with the then Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble after the loyalist murder of a postal worker in 2002.

Respected

In 2002, Mr Foster received a CBE for political and public service. He was related to the husband of Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster.

The DUP minister said it was no secret she did not always agree on politics with her Ulster Unionist relative, but she always respected and admired the style of a man she and her family would remember as a "very dear uncle".

Sinn Féin MLA and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness expressed his condolences at Mr Foster's death.

"I worked with Sam Foster for a time on the executive when he served as minister for the environment," he said.

"Despite our obvious political differences, I found him to be courteous, decent and conscientious at all times."

A retired social worker, Mr Foster was a leading member of the Orange Order in Fermanagh.

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