Arlene Foster has signalled that she intends little change in direction for the DUP if she takes over as Peter Robinson’s successor next week.
She praised the legacy left by the outgoing first minister and party leader, rejected the idea that he had become unpopular with some sections of unionism, and said she could not name anything specific she would do differently.
The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA was speaking to the News Letter after meeting flood-hit businesses in the Dungannon area.
Mrs Foster looks likely to take over both of Mr Robinson’s roles, and said she is confident she will be successful.
She added that – if she does succeed – she is “determined” the party will be able to present a united face to the electorate.
Sammy Wilson – who on Monday had declined to rule out mounting his own challenge for the party leadership – could not be contacted on Tuesday night.
Mr Wilson was one of two DUP MPs (the other being Ian Paisley Junior) who had not signed her nomination papers, which were submitted on Monday night.
One senior party source said a decision on Mr Wilson’s potential candidacy will be made before 5pm on Wednesday, when the nomination window shuts.
DUP rank-and-file members will not choose the new leader; instead, the decision will be made among its 38 MLAs, eight MPs and its sole MEP, and ratified by the party executive.
They will all gather next Thursday night to vote for who will succeed Mr Robinson; with one vote being for the new DUP leader, and the other for first minister.
Mrs Foster said that “an overwhelming number of MLAs” were backing her, but did not have a precise figure.
Asked if she had heard anything further about any challenge from Mr Wilson on Tuesday night, she said: “No, I haven’t heard anything about that at all.”
Mr Wilson ruled himself out as a party leadership candidate last Wednesday, and gave his backing to deputy leader Nigel Dodds.
But, in a surprise move, Mr Dodds pulled out of the running for the DUP leadership at the start of this week, leaving Mrs Foster as top candidate to succeed Mr Robinson.
Asked what kind of changes the public would be likely to see in a Foster-led DUP, she told the News Letter: “Peter has built very firm foundations in relation to devolution, and of course the party had excelled under Dr Paisley...
“I’m very excited about leading the party into the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021, and very much looking forward to building Northern Ireland as a strong part of the United Kingdom, and I believe I have the vision and ability to do that.”
She added: “Many people talked when I was a child about a united Ireland and moving towards that scenario. There’s no talk about that now.
“I think the Union is very secure and very safe, and I want to build on that and build for the future.”
Mr Robinson declared on Twitter on Monday that Mrs Foster had the support of 75 per cent of those eligible to vote.
Although Jeffrey Donaldson said that Mr Robinson cannot support the nomination of any candidate, when asked if he had a personal preference for Mrs Foster as his successor on Monday, Mr Donaldson said: “I think so, yes.”
It was put to her that Mr Robinson had grown quite unpopular with some sections of unionism by the time he opted to stand down.
Mrs Foster replied: “I don’t accept that. You might say that. But I don’t accept that.”
She was asked if being seen as his preferred heir could in any way be a hindrance.
“I don’t accept that I’m his preferred successor, because Peter is chairing the leadership congress, or electoral college, if you like, so he’s neutral in relation to this issue.”
When it came to specific policies, she was asked whether there was anything she might do differently from Mr Robinson.
“No,” she replied.
“I don’t think there’s anything specific.
“I think that Peter has very much recognised in his very early days when he was finance minister the importance of making sure the economy was our number one priority for Northern Ireland.
“Of course, I follow through in relation to that because I think if you have a successful economy you have a successful Northern Ireland, and that’s something that I will continue to focus on, particularly in relation to the devolution of corporation tax in 2018...
“It’s thanks to the leadership of Peter that we have that policy to progress with.”
Mrs Foster said she does not like to think of the DUP as having ‘old’ and ‘new’ wings, adding that she expects “a wide spectrum of people” to be behind her.
She said: “I am pretty confident. But that doesn’t mean to say I’m taking things for granted.
“I very much want to work with everybody in the party, and I look forward to working with everybody in the party, because we do recognise that a unified party is the type of thing that the unionist electorate want to see, and I’m determined that’s what they’ll get.”
‘FEMALE LEADER WOULD BE POSITIVE MOVE’:
The DUP’s chief whip in Westminster said the election of a woman to Northern Ireland’s top job would be a “progressive” change.
Asked what kind of new direction her leadership may herald, Jeffrey Donaldson had said: “It’s early days yet, but I think Arlene will be a strong leader.
“It will be good to have a woman as the leader of Northern Ireland’s largest party. I think that’s a progressive sign.
“The DUP has many women now in senior positions, including three of our ministers, so I think that most people will regard her election as leader as a sign of real progress in Northern Ireland; that women are coming to the fore in politics and playing their part in building our future.”
A final decision will be taken in the Park Avenue Hotel on the night of Thursday December 17.