Belfast Telegraph

I want one party for unionism, says DUP's Arlene Foster

By Noel McAdam

Arlene Foster is seeking a fresh attempt at unionist unity, saying the catastrophic Assembly election must serve as a "wake-up" call.

The under-fire DUP leader said that if a formal agreement could not be reached, there should be a pact on vote transfers between pro-Union parties.

She also hit out at Mike Nesbitt's declaration that he would transfer his vote to the SDLP, saying it had damaged unionism.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, Mrs Foster warned that her party's total vote in last Friday's poll would not be enough to win the next election.

"Ideally, I would like to see a renewed attempt to create unionist unity where the parties would come together," she stated in an article that makes no mention of the 'cash for ash' scandal that led to the election.

"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."

Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill said the election had delivered a clear message to the DUP.

Also writing in the paper today, she said: "We rallied the people to get behind us to stand up against the toxic culture of DUP incompetence, against corruption and arrogance in Government, and against Brexit."

She added: "The unionist majority in the Assembly is gone and the notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished."

The DUP finished just one seat in front of Sinn Fein, with the parties separated by fewer than 1,200 votes. It has seen pressure mount on Mrs Foster, who was yesterday forced to deny reports of a revolt within her party.

Sources said there was anger that a full party meeting had not been called in the wake of Friday's poor election showing.

One described the last few days as a full-scale crisis for the party and unionism in general.

Mrs Foster was accompanied by just deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who does not even sit in the Assembly, as she faced the cameras yesterday. In contrast, Gerry Adams was flanked by Sinn Fein's full Assembly team at a media briefing at Stormont.

Yesterday talks got under way to resolve the impasse as a DUP delegation met Sinn Fein, with more discussions due today.

Later, Mrs Foster denied reports in the Belfast Telegraph that she was facing a potential internal revolt.

Sources told this newspaper they felt dismayed and let down.

But speaking at Stormont, Mrs Foster said: "There's no revolt.

"I've had a very good meeting today with my party officers, I'll meet with my full Assembly team tomorrow morning and talk to a lot of my other colleagues as well.

"So there's no problem, no problem at all."

In today's article, Mrs Foster described the poll results as a reality check, adding: "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."

The DUP ended up with 28 seats in the new 90-strong Assembly. But with a 4% increase in the nationalist vote, Sinn Fein has just one less seat, and unionism has lost its overall majority for the first time.

Mrs Foster said: "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."

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