Arlene Foster: Assembly poll a wake-up call for unionism - only a vote for DUP can get us back on track
Northern Ireland needs one strong pro-Union voice at Westminster and in negotiations to restore power-sharing, writes Arlene Foster
The Assembly election in March has served as a wake-up call for unionism. On that day Sinn Fein fell just 1,200 votes behind the DUP and unionism needlessly lost seats through a failure to act strategically and to transfer.
It demonstrated that elections matter. As a direct consequence of the increase in Sinn Fein's vote, Stormont has not been restored and public services are threatened.
This election gives the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to put things right.
Even though this is not an election to the Assembly, it will go a long way towards determining whether devolution is restored, or if we are to be ruled directly from Westminster for the next five years, setting the direction for Northern Ireland for decades to come.
Every vote in every seat will matter, not just to determine who will be returned to parliament, but also as a mandate for the political negotiations that will follow.
That is why I am looking for the strongest possible vote for the DUP right across Northern Ireland to get politics back on the right track.
Given the record of Jeremy Corbyn over the last four decades, I am certainly not neutral about who wins the general election and who is the next Prime Minister, but, equally, I want the people of Northern Ireland to be taking many of the key decisions about our future.
It is a perverse logic that a vote for Sinn Fein, the party which claims to oppose a Conservative Government, will do the most to give the Prime Minister a free hand on Brexit, on the border and on the level of public spending in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein complains about Tory cuts, but isn't prepared to lift a hand at Stormont or at Westminster to stop them.
Sinn Fein complains about Brexit a year after it did precious little to oppose it at the referendum, but seems to be the only party that actually seems to talk up the prospects of a hard border no one actually wants.
And Sinn Fein is asking for people's votes not to go to a parliament that it says it would have no influence in anyway.
At this election the surest way to give Theresa May and her team a free hand to take all the decisions in Northern Ireland is not to vote for the local Conservative candidates, it is to vote for Sinn Fein.
I want to see a local Assembly and power-sharing Executive up and running again where it is local people - and not Westminster - who make decisions.
We want to make devolution work. We will enter the negotiations that will follow the election with a positive approach and a goal of seeing the Assembly and Executive restored.
We will not draw any red lines, or set any preconditions, but will judge any potential deal against five core tests.
1 Is the agreement likely to increase support for Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the United Kingdom?
2 Is the agreement fully consistent with Northern Ireland remaining a full and integral part of the United Kingdom?
3 Is the agreement fully compatible with our British citizenship?
4 Will the agreement result in better government and policies for the people of Northern Ireland than a return to direct rule?
5 Is the agreement consistent with the mandate we received for our Assembly manifesto in March?
We have, and we will, continue to engage constructively, but this process cannot and will not be a one-way street.
For me, by far the most important issue at this election is not devolution, but the Union itself.
My Britishness is not just about the passport I hold, but the identity that I have. It cannot be reduced to a name or a badge, but is a culture and a way of life. It is about decency and respect.
It is about a shared history going back generations. It is about a shared cultural experience which encompasses the newspapers that we read, the television we watch and the football teams we support.
It is about the institutions we cherish - like the NHS - which are the envy of others.
My belief in and support for the United Kingdom does not rely upon the economic arguments, though there can be no doubt that it is overwhelmingly the case that we are all better together than apart. The United Kingdom has allowed the sharing of wealth and prosperity, not just between people but across our entire country.
I want us to play as full a part as possible in the life of the United Kingdom as a whole. I want us to be able to contribute as much now and in the future in terms of the cultural and economic life of our country, just as we did a hundred years ago on the battlefields across Europe.
The Union already commands widespread support, but we should also ask the question of what we can do to make it even more appealing to everyone within our society.
But first we must succeed in this election. And for unionists to succeed we must unite behind the strongest unionist voice available.
Northern Ireland needs one strong unionist voice at Westminster and in the negotiations.
Next Thursday, I am asking people to get Northern Ireland back on the right track.
To vote to get the best deal for Northern Ireland.
To strengthen our hand in negotiations.
To get the Assembly back up and running.
To protect our place in the United Kingdom.
And to unite behind one strong unionist voice - the Democratic Unionist Party.
- Arlene Foster MLA is leader of the Democratic Unionist Party