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Arlene Foster: My plan to protect the Union

'If we take the wrong turn now, we could see all we hold dear threatened'

By Suzanne Breen

DUP leader Arlene Foster last night revealed that she has been putting together a strategy to defend and strengthen the Union.

In a keynote address in Glasgow, Mrs Foster positioned herself as part of a UK-wide campaign to promote the benefits of maintaining the Union amidst attempts by Irish and Scottish nationalists to undermine it.

The DUP leader noted the drift "away from support for mainstream unionist parties" in last month's Assembly election.

While she asserted that the Union was "not under threat in the short term", she warned unionists not to be complacent but rather to rise to the challenges facing them.

"If we take the wrong turn now, we could see everything we hold so dear under threat in the years to come.

"But if we ask the right questions and take the right steps now, we can ensure that we pass on to the next generation the same rich inheritance that was passed to us," she said.

Around 300 people attended the meeting which was organised by the DUP with the support of a range of pro-Union groups. It is the first of many outreach events that the party will hold across the UK.

The DUP said the meeting was arranged before the Westminster election was announced.

Mrs Foster explained she was planning to reach outside traditional, narrow circles, and bring people together "from all walks of life and unionism" to create a document entitled 'The Case for the Union'.

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She warned that efforts to broaden their base may involve unionists having to rethink certain positions so they don't "deter support as a result of things that are not fundamental" to the Union.

Launching a stinging attack on Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, over his past relationship with Sinn Fein, she said she didn't expect him to ever become Prime Minister.

"It is hard to take seriously the proclaimed unionism of a man who was so close to the political representatives of the IRA at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

"It is hard to see much good coming for the Labour Party from the coming election except the replacement of their party leader," she commented.

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Mrs Foster said it was ironic that the biggest threat to the Union now came from Scotland, not Northern Ireland, but she expressed confidence that nationalist challenges in both jurisdictions could be overcome.

She urged unionists at home to ask themselves what they could do to make their cause "more appealing to everyone within our society".

She continued: "In Northern Ireland at the last Assembly election, for the first time, unionists lost our majority in the Assembly.

"While that has no direct implications for our position in the UK, we should nonetheless be mindful of a trend away from support for mainstream unionist parties.

"The 2017 election may yet prove to be an aberration following a decade of nationalism in decline, but it would be dangerous to take such a thing for granted.

"We need to be proactive. We need to be positive. We need to understand and to react to challenges before, and not after, they crystallise."

Mrs Foster insisted that unionists must "challenge ourselves as well as others". She said: "We are just at the start of what I expect to be a long and arduous process.

"Our goal must be, by the time the centenary of Northern Ireland comes around in 2021, to have a persuasive case that those of us who believe in the UK can confidently make anywhere and to any audience."

Mrs Foster said that while unionism was "not under threat in the short term . . . we must use the opportunity that we now have to ensure that it is not under threat in the medium or long term either".

While she believed that a border poll in Northern Ireland would "resoundingly endorse" the Union, the DUP leader said the Scottish referendum showed that such campaigns were "divisive and disruptive".

She claimed that by "making and preparing the case for the Union" now, the "facts would ultimately deliver a verdict which would render any future demand for a border poll devoid of credibility". Mrs Foster declared: "The case for the Union is strong. The case for the Union is sound. And even those who would deny our cultural links have to accept that, quite simply, the case for the Union makes financial sense.

"I see this 'Case for the Union' being aimed at those in Great Britain as well as our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland.

"I see it as an opportunity to make the case for the Union in terms of our history, our culture, our economy as well as every other facet of life.

"I want to use this case not just to remind ourselves of the value of the Union but to persuade others of its worth. I want us to put on the map and on the record the contribution that Northern Ireland has made and will continue to make to the life of our nation."

Mrs Foster insisted that this campaign should "not be the property of any political party but should encompass contributions from right across life, both in Northern Ireland and in the UK as a whole".

The DUP leader said the case for the Union didn't rely solely on economic arguments.

Speaking of her own unionism, she continued: "My nationality is not simply a choice like support of a football team, but is integral to who I am as a person.

"My Britishness is not just about the passport I hold but the identity that I have. It is a culture and a way of life. It is about decency and respect."

Mrs Foster warned that it was "a time of threat to the integrity of the UK and it is a time for care and vigilance".

But it was also "a time of great opportunity", she said. "If we can successfully navigate the challenges of the next few years, then I am sure that a period of constitutional peace and prosperity can lie ahead," she added.

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