Arlene Foster unveils first election manifesto as DUP leader
Arlene Foster has launched her first election manifesto as leader of the Democratic Unionists with a five point plan she insisted would deliver a stronger and safer future for Northern Ireland.
Mrs Foster, who succeeded Peter Robinson as both Stormont First Minister and the leader of the region's biggest party upon his retirement last year, promised a focus on the health service, jobs, protecting family budgets, education and infrastructure investment.
In a break with tradition, the DUP launched its manifesto at a relatively early stage of the campaign for May's Assembly poll.
Mrs Foster said she wanted to give voters plenty of time to consider the party's blueprint.
The document is built around the five central themes and includes pledges to increase health service spending by £1 billion; to create " tens of thousands" of new jobs; not to raise household taxes "a penny more than is needed"; raise education standards for everyone; and build a number of new schools, roads and hospitals.
"The DUP has a clear vision for a stronger, safer future - we are ambitious for Northern Ireland and want to use the opportunity to build on what we have achieved to date," she told supporters at the launch event in Belfast.
"We do not underestimate how far Northern Ireland has come in recent years, nor do we pretend there is nothing more that needs to be done.
"Northern Ireland today is a far cry from what it was like when I was growing up and our plan will go some way to building a stronger future for the next generation.
"Now is not the time to take a chance with the future of our people and the future of our country. We have a chance to make Northern Ireland a stronger, safer place and I want to secure the progress we have made."
Mrs Foster also pledged to support victims of the Troubles and said she would not tolerate any "rewriting of history" with regards to the conflict.
The DUP is fielding 44 candidates in the election. It won 38 of the 108 seats available in 2011.
In a speech to party faithful last month, Mrs Foster made multiple references to Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, claiming the election boiled down to a choice between him or her for first minister, insisting it would be "bad for Northern Ireland" if the veteran republican secured the top job.
Some critics characterised her comments as a negative throwback to the "them and us" politics of the past.
Mrs Foster made no reference to the Sinn Fein stalwart as she launched the party's manifesto, but afterwards she dismissed the suggestion the omission was a reaction to the criticism.
"There's no point hiding away from the fact that the person who is going to be first minister after this election is either me or Martin McGuinness," she said.
She added: "I am not going to ignore the reality of Martin McGuinness or indeed of Sinn Fein but certainly we go into this election to win, as every political party does as they go into an election campaign."
In his speech at the event, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds challenged those who have claimed it does not matter who is first minister, as the post holds the same authority as the deputy first minister's job.
"What world are they living in?" he asked. "In my long experience in politics I have never heard of an election anywhere in the world where those who are taking part claim that it does not matter who actually wins."
The DUP is at odds with the four other main parties in the Assembly in respect of support for a Brexit. Mrs Foster said she did not believe the party risked losing traditional supporters, particularly those with backgrounds in agriculture and business, due its stance on the EU referendum.
"There will be plenty of time to discuss the issues around the European referendum in May and in June but as for now it is important that, whatever happens in June, that we have a strong Assembly with strong leadership in the Assembly for Northern Ireland moving forward," she said.
Mrs Foster said it was wrong to assume that all those in the farming or business communities were pro-EU.
"As I go around provinces I hear differing views from farmers and I hear differing views from business people," she said.
The party staged its manifesto launch in the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road to demonstrate its desire to win a seat in the constituency of west Belfast. The Shankill, despite being a predominantly unionist area, sits within an electoral area that is otherwise nationalist/republican in make-up, with Sinn Fein winning five of the six seats in 2011.
In an apparent reference to this year's republican commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule, Mrs Foster said: "How fitting it would be for unionism to take a seat directly from Sinn Fein in this historic year."