Arlene Foster has been sharply critical of Theresa May, saying that she does not have the necessary vision for a post-Brexit Britain.
In comments at the launch of her party’s European election manifesto, the DUP leader did nothing to assist the prime minister who is kept in office by the DUP – but who is now clinging to power in the face of widespread Tory calls for her to depart immediately.
The DUP has been increasingly critical of Mrs May over recent months but has given no indication that it will move beyond that to withdraw support for the Conservatives.
Yesterday Mrs Foster said: “What people want to see is democracy being respected. Unfortunately it hasn’t been respected. We have a remain parliament. Therefore, parliament has not been able to deliver on Brexit in the way that it should have been delivered upon.
“We have a prime minister, frankly, who doesn’t have the vision for the United Kingdom post-Brexit that we all want to see. We want to see a United Kingdom that is strong post-Brexit, that has a strong relationship with Europe ... but we have to deliver on the wishes of the people.
“I mean, democracy is at risk here if we do not respect the wishes of the people in the referendum and that’s why we believe we should defend the Union and deliver on Brexit.”
DUP MEP Diane Dodds also implicitly looked beyond Mrs May, saying that Brexit should be delivered “whoever the prime minister happens to be”.
Speaking at the manifesto launch in Seaview football stadium in north Belfast, Mrs Foster stressed her desire to see unionists transfer from the DUP to other pro-Union candidates. Although that is in line with past DUP policy, that message is prominently reinforced on the cover of DUP election literature, an allusion to the concern that with UUP veteran Jim Nicholson not standing again and a falling unionist vote, unionism might not hold its two MEP seats.
When asked which two unionists she wanted to see returned, Mrs Foster declined to give a clear answer, saying: “Well, obviously I want to see Diane Dodds returned first ... and then it is for the electorate to decide in terms of the other unionist that is returned. We want to send a very clear message to defend the Union and to deliver on Brexit ... the first priority is always to defend the Union. We are a unionist party – the clue is in the title – so we want to see two unionists returned.”
When asked why unionists should not vote tactically for Jim Allister or Danny Kennedy in an attempt to secure two unionist seats, Mrs Dodds said: “It is incredibly important for us that you vote Dodds number one because we want to send a message to London and Brussels that the will of the people cannot be overturned, that the referendum result must be respected – and with due respect to all the other parties in the election, it is only the DUP that has the strength to actually deliver on that.”
She added: “This is about sending a huge big message to London and to Brussels that we want to leave the European Union and we want to leave together.”
With the possibility that the MEPs elected next week will not serve more than a few months in their posts, yesterday’s manifesto launch focused largely on the principle of leaving the EU rather than what Mrs Dodds will do if that does not happen.
However, the manifesto sets out her decade of experience as an MEP, describing her as a “champion for the interests of Northern Ireland”.
The manifesto sets out how Mrs Dodds has voted against increases to the EU budget, against a move towards an EU army and in favour of reduced salaries for MEPs and EU commissioners.
The manifesto also sets out her support for an EU-wide end to cross-border mobile phone roaming charges, a particular problem for those living in border counties.
With Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party not standing in Northern Ireland, the DUP has set out a manifesto which presents the party as the most firmly pro-Brexit major party in the contest.
The DUP, which led the campaign for a leave vote in Northern Ireland during the 2016 referendum, is fighting the election under the slogan ‘Defend the Union; Deliver Brexit’.
Writing in the party’s manifesto, Arlene Foster said of the 2016 referendum: “It was not an English vote, a Scottish vote, a Welsh vote or a Northern Irish vote but a British vote to leave. It is often forgotten that it was the ‘Leave’ vote in Scotland and Northern Ireland that gave the Leave campaign its UK majority.”
She added: “I recognise that within unionism there was a divergence between Leave and Remain. However, our common unionism means we can all unite in respecting the result and that we should leave as one United kingdom.”
Mrs Dodds’ election literature reinforces the DUP’s opposition to the backstop in Theresa May’s proposed deal with the EU, something it says would threaten the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK and mean that Northern Ireland “would sit in a separate legal position from the rest of the United Kingdom in economic and trade terms”.
The candidate said: “We believed the result of the referendum in 2016 must be honoured. The UK should have already exited the EU. At this election, use your vote to tell them again – the result of the referendum to leave must be implemented.”
The DUP leader told journalists that her party colleague was an “outstanding candidate” who had “opened doors in Brussels for innocent victims of terrorism by linking up victims in Northern Ireland with people in Spain who have also suffered at the hands of terrorists”.