There is nothing scarier than Sinn Fein’s vision for Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster has said, dismissing as “absurd” suggestions that it doesn’t matter who is First Minister.
Rejecting criticism that the DUP campaign has been built around scaremongering over the possibility of Martin McGuinness getting Stormont’s top job, Mrs Foster nevertheless again declined to confirm whether if the DUP did lose its top post it would continue in the Executive.
Speaking to the News Letter last night, Mrs Foster said: “There’s nothing scarier if you’re a unionist than seeing Sinn Fein’s vision implemented in Northern Ireland. We heard a little bit of their vision last weekend when they had their conference. Obviously it’s a vision of a united Ireland and I do not believe that is the vision shared by the greater number of people in Northern Ireland.”
The DUP leader went on: “Some media commentators have said ‘it doesn’t matter who is First Minister’. Well, frankly it does matter. It matters a great deal who is First Minister in terms of obviously the symbolism but also in terms of who the biggest party is because they obviously get the first pick in terms of ministries and the greatest number of ministers within the Executive. So it is really absurd to say that it doesn’t matter who the First Minister is; it matters a great deal.”
Mrs Foster has been put front and centre of the DUP campaign to an extent not seen since the late Ian Paisley’s heyday. But the new leader played down the pressure which that puts on her.
“I took on the job of DUP leader and then First Minister with my eyes wide open as to the responsibility that I was taking on. I knew that I was coming after two giants of unionism is respect of Ian and Peter. I knew what I was getting into. I am determined to lead this party from the front.”
Mrs Foster declined to confirm that she would serve as Deputy First Minister if – in what would be a huge upset – the DUP did not come back again as the largest party.
“I’m not dealing in hypotheticals; every party goes out to have the maximum number of seats. I don’t take anything for granted. The people have the ultimate power on election day; everyone has the same amount of power with a vote to cast and I’m determined that we look for as many of those votes as we possibly can and set out our vision for Northern Ireland in a very positive way, rather than being a negative campaign...”
Although Mrs Foster has not said that she would refuse to serve as Deputy First Minister – or Joint First Minister if in that scenario the titles were changed as Mr McGuinness has proposed – her comments about what would happen in that situation are much less certain than those of the late DUP founder.
In 2010, Ian Paisley wrote in the News Letter that if Sinn Fein ever emerged as the biggest party in a democratic election then he would have to accept the result. Lord Bannside, who died in 2014, said: “I have to accept the will of the people....Sinn Fein didn’t become the majority party on my watch.”
An exceptionally low-key campaign has led to concern that turnout could be very low in next Thursday’s election.
Mrs Foster urged unionists to go to the polls, reminding them of how close the 2010 Fermanagh-South Tyrone result had been, when just one vote saw Sinn Fein take the seat: “If people think that their vote’s not important, they should always remember what happened in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.”
The DUP and Sinn Fein have separately pledged to invest an additional £1 billion in the NHS over the lifetime of the next Assembly. However, a number of reports from medical experts have said that the NHS in Northern Ireland does not just need additional money, but needs fundamental reform which would involve closing some smaller hospitals and centralising services in centres of excellence which could save lives.
When asked if she will endorse the closure of some smaller hospitals – something which is politically unpopular – Mrs Foster said: “What is important for the health service is that we have political consensus.
“In the past, when health ministers have tried to take decisions in relation to very complex issues they have often been attacked for party political reasons by others.”
When asked if she could guarantee that all DUP MLAs will oppose any moves towards making abortion more accessible in Northern Ireland, Mrs Foster said: “We are a political party. We are certainly not a collection of individuals. We certainly all subscribe to the fundamentals of the party...if there are difficult issues that come up, we talk about them in a collective fashion.”
Mrs Foster said that her party had support for its abortion stance from a majority of UUP and SDLP MLAs and said she wants to “build consensus so we can move forward in the way that gains the most consensus across the community”.