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Arlene Foster: We won't go up against the UUP in Fermanagh... but there can be no argument that we lead unionism in South Belfast

By Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP

On the day the Prime Minister announced her intention to call a General Election, I said that it provided the people of Northern Ireland with an opportunity to vote for the Union.

While others continue to seek to re-fight the European referendum result, the reality for Northern Ireland is that it is the Union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom that matters the most to us.

The forthcoming poll on the June 8 in many respects is timely.

We have been seeking to get the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly up and running again.

Republicans, it would appear, have been interested in prioritising some issues more than the general need to have good government for all our people.

Consequently we have yet to have our local administration formed and, while I remain ready, and committed, to doing so, the General Election provides a platform for voters to demonstrate their support for Northern Ireland's place within the Union and to give the Democratic Unionist Party a mandate to speak as the 'Party for Northern Ireland'.

In Parliament, Democratic Unionists have used the influence given to us by the electorate to keep Northern Ireland's interests to the fore.

As the largest party from the Province, and the fifth largest in Parliament, our Members of Parliament seek to influence and support outcomes that benefit all our people.

This election comes just over two years since MPs were last elected and, in that time, we have worked individually and collectively with the government to make sure that when decisions are taken, Ministers are mindful of Northern Ireland's needs.

Over the course of the next seven weeks I look forward to making the positive case for the Union to people throughout Northern Ireland.

It is vital that those who cherish our United Kingdom understand that now is the time to demonstrate their support for it at the polls.

As the leader of unionism I want to persuade those who would not ordinarily see themselves as unionists that their long-term interests are best served in the United Kingdom.

I want them to see the importance of electing Members of Parliament who support the Union and who will take their seats and do the job.

To that end the Democratic Unionist Party will work with other like-minded parties and groups who share our goal of supporting the Union and who want to work to maximise Unionist representation at Westminster.

As a party we have been long-time advocates of unionist co-operation, having a track record of acting in the wider interests of Unionism and Northern Ireland.

The electorate have time and again endorsed our call for unionists to work together for the greater good to the point where the DUP is now overwhelmingly the largest unionist party in every one of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland.

In Belfast alone we have five MLAs to the UUP's one.

We are the only unionist representatives elected to the Assembly in both North and South Belfast.

In East Belfast, at the last Assembly election, we had almost three times as many votes as the next largest unionist party.

At my invitation I will be meeting with UUP leader Robin Swann MLA later today to discuss wider election issues.

I welcome his party's decision not to field a candidate in North Belfast, West Belfast and Foyle.

It is beyond doubt that Nigel Dodds and Gavin Robinson are the standard-bearers for unionism in North and East Belfast respectively.

Equally, there can be no argument that the DUP is not only the lead unionist party but the lead party in South Belfast. Sadly, in 2015, the UUP did not accept that reality but, given the results in 2016 and 2017, it cannot now be disputed.

In 2015, despite having two DUP MLAs to the UUP's one, we stood aside in Fermanagh/South Tyrone to allow Tom Elliott the chance to be elected to Parliament and provide the people of Fermanagh/South Tyrone with active representation.

Those co-operative efforts were successful.

At the Assembly election in March, the DUP polled 15,581 votes to the UUP's 6,060. Notwithstanding our significantly larger status in the constituency, I will not field a DUP candidate at this election.

When I was elected as leader of the DUP I said I wanted to work to bring about wider unionist co-operation.

I believed it was the right approach then and I still believe that it is the right approach today.

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