Arlene Foster’s face adorned two huge banners on the stage. Sandwiched between those, the huge on-stage screen displayed her face and the words ‘Support Arlene’s plan for a stronger Northern Ireland’.
Placards held by cheering DUP candidates said: “I’m backing Arlene for FM [First Minister].”
The televised party election broadcast which was shown at the event yesterday and across Northern Ireland last night focused almost exclusively on Mrs Foster – even including her mother and footage of her as a schoolgirl.
And, of 12 photos in the manifesto document itself, 11 were of Mrs Foster.
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The DUP is not the only party to prominently utilise its leader as an asset – TUV leader Jim Allister is appearing across the Province alongside his candidates on their election posters.
But the scale of the DUP move to iconify its leader is exceptional and would not have been possible with Peter Robinson, given his approval ratings among many traditional DUP supporters.
It is, in many ways, in line with what has already happened in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in Wales. The SNP’s success has been built on several foundations, but one of those has been the presence of a strong leader – first Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon – who personifies the party.
Mrs Foster referred to having been on a “listening tour” over recent months and the party is attempting to demonstrate that it has listened and changed in response to feedback from its support base which has been very hostile over recent years.
When asked if there was a danger that the election could be turned into a personality contest rather than the party standing on its record over the last five years, Mrs Foster delivered a robust defence of her actions over the last Assembly term, saying: “I’m very proud of my record in government.”
Referring to her prominence in the party’s campaign, she added: “In case you might have missed it, Sam, I am the leader of this tremendously great party...and incredibly proud to do so.”
At that point, the DUP crowd cheered, as political crowds do. But there is a sense that the DUP’s new leader has genuinely re-energised the party.
For that reason, many of the candidates cheering may actually have been cheering what they believe are increased prospects of holding their seats.