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Arlene Foster: My wish is for the pro-Union parties to now come together

By Arlene Foster

In the next few weeks there will be intensive talks aimed at restoring an Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Inevitably, that is where our focus and attention will understandably lie.

However, before we move on it is important that we reflect on the outcome of last Thursday's election.

Much has been said and written about the impact of the results and the damage that has been done to unionism, but before people get carried away, we should sit back and look at what actually happened.

Although the DUP emerged as the largest party and more people voted for unionist candidates than for nationalists, it was not a good election for unionism.

However, in the disappointment of last week lies the seeds of the future success for unionism.

No one should be surprised with the outcome of the election. For the last six weeks we warned how close the election would be. We warned that there was a real chance that Sinn Fein would emerge as the largest party and they almost did. In fact, Sinn Fein finished only one seat behind the DUP and secured just over 1,000 fewer votes.

While we warned of how close the election would be, Mike Nesbitt suggested it would not be close and his colleague Steve Aiken even predicted that the Ulster Unionist Party would emerge as the largest party.

Having returned with 10 seats its fair to say that Mr Aiken's prediction about the UUP was flawed.

There is no doubt that the election was good for Sinn Fein. Rather than panic, this is a time for unionism to analyse and understand the result. We must listen to the voters and build for the future. We can and will learn lessons.

We must accept and recognise the fact that the DUP fought the election in the most difficult of circumstances. In the months leading up to the election, we were being assailed on all sides from political opponents and the media alike.

Despite all of that, the DUP returned with 225,413 votes, more than any other party and the most any party has ever won in an Assembly election since the Belfast Agreement in 1998 and the most votes the DUP has won since the Westminster election of 2005.

Indeed, only twice in the history of the DUP have we ever secured more votes.

The number of people voting DUP increased in each and every constituency in Northern Ireland and even with the enormously increased nationalist turnout our vote fell by just over one percentage point.

Unfortunately, that did not translate into Assembly seats in the way that we had hoped for a number of reasons.

Five-seat, rather than six-seat constituencies place a much greater premium on transfers and the DUP suffered as a result.

In particular, the call from Mike Nesbitt to transfer to the SDLP rather than to other unionists had a material outcome and was decisive in a number of constituencies such as Lagan Valley.

Having said that, if the election on March 2 had been fought on six rather than five seats, there would have been almost no nationalist seats picked up at the expense of unionists.

The overall split would have been different between the parties but the community balance would not have been materially different than in 2016.

So what do we need to do next time?

This election has undoubtedly been a wake-up call for unionism.

Today no one is saying that Sinn Fein could not emerge as the largest party in an election in Northern Ireland. No one is saying that it is not possible for more nationalists to be elected than unionists.

Those people who were prepared to urge unionists to transfer to nationalists before unionists must accept that the price of doing that is to give a boost to nationalism.

Given how Sinn Fein reacted to almost winning the election with their renewed calls for a border poll and for concessions from the Government, can you imagine how they would have reacted to having won the election?

There is a responsibility on all unionists moving forward. As a party the DUP must reflect on what we can do to remove barriers from people voting for us.

The 225,413 votes for the DUP last week was an impressive number, but it will not be enough to win the next election.

We must not only hold the vote that we already have, we also need to expand to the next generation of voters. That is both in terms of first preference votes and also in terms of our capacity to win transfers.

Ideally, I would like to see a renewed attempt to create unionist unity where the parties would come together.

Failing that, we need to agree transfer pacts where unionists transfer down the ballot paper to each other.

Mike Nesbitt's transfer policy did enormous damage to the UUP, but it also hurt unionism more widely. This must be addressed if unionism is to remain as the dominant voice in Northern Ireland.

Finally, let me say a word about the personal support that I have received.

I was honoured by the trust and the confidence that was shown in me last May but I was even more humbled by the support that I was given last week in the most difficult of circumstances.

I do not take it for granted and in the coming weeks and months I will do all that I can to repay the faith that has been shown in me.

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