There will be “chaos” if the DUP is not returned as the biggest party at Stormont in next month’s election, the DUP’s deputy leader has claimed.
Speaking on Monday morning at the Spectrum Centre on Belfast’s Shankill Road, Nigel Dodds repeatedly drove home the message that unionist voters must ensure that Martin McGuinness does not become First Minister after the election.
Fear of Sinn Fein becoming the biggest party was credited with helping secure the DUP’s exceptional performance in the last Assembly election.
In the 2011 council elections, the DUP took 27.2 per cent of the vote. But in the Assembly election – held on the same day – the party took 30 per cent of the vote, a crucial increase which helped it return with an extraordinary 38 MLAs.
Sinn Fein, on 26.9 per cent of the vote, was significantly behind with 29 MLAs.
Speaking at the launch of the DUP manifesto, Mr Dodds said: “When people come to cast their votes, they must know that at the heart of this election there is a clear choice – it’s a choice between accelerating the progress that we have made and taking a leap into an unknown and unpredictable future.
“It’s a choice between strong leadership for a better future and the chaos that would result from the DUP not being the leading party in the Northern Ireland administration.”
Mr Dodds said that Northern Ireland had been “led to the economic brink by the financial irresponsibility of Sinn Fein and the SDLP” over welfare reform, while the Ulster Unionists had “left the fight” by quitting the Executive over the allegation that the IRA had murdered a man in Belfast.
Mr McGuinness has said that if Sinn Fein does become the biggest party – which is thought to be unlikely – he would not use the title ‘First Minister’ but would instead rename the joint office as ‘Joint First Minister’.
Mr Dodds said that “crucially”, the election would decide who becomes First Minister, a post which he said presented “the public face of Northern Ireland both in the United Kingdom and overseas”.
He added: “In that context, all the pundits and commentators agree that it is a two-horse race between Arlene Foster rand Martin McGuinness. And today I make no apology for saying that I want Arlene as First Minister after the election on May 5.”
He said that “for narrow political advantage”, some people would claim that “it doesn’t matter who the First Minister is”. He responded: “What world are they living in?”
At the manifesto launch, DUP leader Arlene Foster set out a five point plan she insisted would deliver a stronger and safer future for Northern Ireland.
Mrs Foster, who succeeded Peter Robinson as both Stormont First Minister and the leader of the Province’s biggest party upon his retirement last year, promised a focus on the health service, jobs, protecting family budgets, education and infrastructure investment.
In a break with tradition, the DUP launched its manifesto at a relatively early stage of the campaign for May’s Assembly poll.
Mrs Foster said she wanted to give voters plenty of time to consider the party’s blueprint.
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 DUP has a clear vision for a stronger, safer future – we are ambitious for Northern Ireland and want to use the opportunity to build on what we have achieved to date,” she told supporters at the launch event in Belfast.
“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.”
Mrs Foster also pledged to support victims of the Troubles and said she would not tolerate any “rewriting of history” with regards to the conflict.
The DUP is fielding 44 candidates in the election.
In a speech to party faithful last month, Mrs Foster made multiple references to Mr McGuinness, claiming the election boiled down to a choice between him or her for First Minister, insisting it would be “bad for Northern Ireland” if the veteran republican secured the top job.
Some critics characterised her comments as a negative throwback to the “them and us” politics of the past.
Mrs Foster made no reference to the Sinn Fein stalwart as she launched the party’s manifesto, but afterwards she dismissed the suggestion the omission was a reaction to the criticism.
“There’s no point hiding away from the fact that the person who is going to be First Minister after this election is either me or Martin McGuinness,” she said.
She added: “I am not going to ignore the reality of Martin McGuinness or indeed of Sinn Fein but certainly we go into this election to win, as every political party does as they go into an election campaign.”
The DUP is at odds with the four other main parties in the Assembly in respect of support for a Brexit. Mrs Foster said she did not believe the party risked losing traditional supporters, particularly those with backgrounds in agriculture and business, due to its stance on the EU referendum.
“There will be plenty of time to discuss the issues around the European referendum in May and in June but as for now it is important that, whatever happens in June, that we have a strong Assembly with strong leadership in the Assembly for Northern Ireland moving forward,” she said.
Mrs Foster said it was wrong to assume that all those in the farming or business communities were pro-EU.
“As I go around provinces I hear differing views from farmers and I hear differing views from business people,” she said.
The party staged its manifesto launch in the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road to demonstrate its desire to win a seat in the constituency of west Belfast. The Shankill, despite being a predominantly unionist area, sits within an electoral area that is otherwise nationalist/republican in make-up, with Sinn Fein winning five of the six seats in 2011.
In an apparent reference to this year’s republican commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule, Mrs Foster said: “How fitting it would be for unionism to take a seat directly from Sinn Fein in this historic year.”