The DUP has become the first party to launch its Assembly campaign, unveiling a strategy which is firmly built around its new leader Arlene Foster in a way which it has not done since the time of the late Ian Paisley.
The Province’s biggest party published its manifesto on Monday morning at the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road – right on the boundary of West Belfast, a constituency where the party has a realistic chance of winning a seat.
At an event attended by scores of DUP candidates, members and the media, the new leader broke with past DUP tradition by launching its manifesto ahead of all its rivals.
The document is built around the five central themes and includes pledges to increase health service spending by £1 billion; to create “tens of thousands” of new jobs; not to raise household taxes “a penny more than is needed”; raise education standards for everyone; and build a number of new schools, roads and hospitals.
The manifesto contains some explicit changes to party policy and some subtle hints to potential future changes.
After years of opposing moves to end the secrecy around political donations in Northern Ireland, the party has come out firmly in favour of introducing the same rules as operate in the rest of the UK, which would mean major political donations being revealed.
The manifesto says that “the DUP believes that the time is now right to reform the system of political donations in Northern Ireland”.
However, the party added that the full suite of UK political donations law should be implemented in Northern Ireland, including a bar on all foreign donations, something which would impact on Sinn Fein.
It will now be up to the NIO to decide whether to change the law on the matter.
There is just one brief sentence on ‘parades and protests’ and no reference to abortion – despite being among the most divisive political debates over the last Assembly term.
In line with many DUP manifestos, the document again trumpets the fact that Northern Ireland has the lowest household taxes in the UK. The document commits the party to keeping that position.
However, when asked if she would rule out increases to taxes such as the regional rate – which could be increased significantly while keeping the Province’s tax burden lower than other UK regions – Mrs Foster declined to do so.
Instead, she repeated that “so long as the DUP is in a prime position in government” it would keep household taxes lower than elsewhere in the UK.
Mrs Foster said: “We do not underestimate how far Northern Ireland has come in recent years, nor do we pretend there is nothing more that needs to be done.
“Northern Ireland today is a far cry from what it was like when I was growing up and our plan will go some way to building a stronger future for the next generation.
“Now is not the time to take a chance with the future of our people and the future of our country.
“We have a chance to make Northern Ireland a stronger, safer place and I want to secure the progress we have made.”