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DUP can’t expect votes to come to us anymore

The days of the public casting votes based on the colour of rosettes are over. The DUP will fight the next election offering voters a positive vision, says Nigel Dodds

In recent days we have seen a sustained campaign of misinformation concerning the procedure for electing a First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Those responsible for the spread of this propaganda generally fall into two categories: those who are trying to frighten the unionist electorate for their own electoral gain, or those who are too lazy to acquaint themselves with the full facts — whether it is politicians or university dons who are using their academic credentials to disguise their political bias.

It is important in the interests of fair and balanced debate that we establish what the actual facts are surrounding this process and how what was agreed at St Andrews compares with the Belfast Agreement model.

It has been falsely claimed that under the 1998 Agreement the post of First Minister went to the largest party of the largest community, which resulted in a unionist taking the position.

Neither the Belfast Agreement nor subsequent legislation created any such arrangements.

The Belfast Agreement describes the position thus: “The First Minister and deputy First Minister shall be jointly elected into office by the Assembly voting on a cross-community basis...”

The voting mechanism to be used was parallel consent — this was defined in the Agreement as: “... a majority of those members present and voting, including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations present and voting.”

This is confirmed in the Northern Ireland Act 1998: “Each candidate for either office must stand for election jointly with a candidate for the other office... Two candidates standing jointly shall not be elected to the two offices without the support of a majority of the members voting in the election, a majority of the designated nationalists voting and a majority of the designated unionists voting.”

The mutual veto meant being the largest party in the largest designation bestowed no automatic claim to the First Minister’s office.

Those seeking to scare the public have frequently parroted the baseless claim that, under the St Andrews Agreement, the First Minister post goes to the leader of the largest party.

Again, the St Andrews Agreement said no such thing.

It stated: “The nominating officer of the largest party in the largest designation in the Assembly shall make a nomination to the Assembly presiding officer for the post of First Minister.

“The nominating officer of the largest party in the second-largest designation in the Assembly shall similarly nominate for the post of deputy First Minister.”

So the sources are clear. The Belfast Agreement did not create a system of the largest party of the largest designation gaining the First Minister’s office — as has been falsely claimed; rather, through the St Andrews Agreement, the DUP sought to create such a system.

Regrettably, the Government did not faithfully implement this section of the St Andrews Agreement in the legislation.

The Government changed it to be the largest party — a change the DUP did not support.

Those who claim that the fear of a Sinn Fein First Minister will be a feature of the DUP campaign next May, or will be a motivating factor in how people vote, are guilty of being somewhat condescending towards Ulster voters.

Such analysis presents the people as akin to sheep that are easily herded into the voting booths based on fear created by scheming politicians.

Such individuals may not have noticed, as my party has, that voter attitudes are shifting.

Any politician campaigning on the streets of Belfast or the lanes of Tyrone who thinks they can simply expect a person to (a) vote and (b) vote for them based on the flag on their rosette will be in for a surprise.

There may have been a time when votes could be expected much more than earned, but that day has passed.

Earning votes is exactly what my party set out to do in the recent 2010 Westminster election.

We fought for — and got — a positive mandate of ‘Let’s Keep Northern Ireland Moving Forward.’

Beyond Westminster, the result shows the DUP is in pole position to remain the largest party in the Assembly.

These results also show opportunities for broad unionism to improve its position in the Assembly. My party intends to ensure that this will indeed be the case next May through its own work and by pursuing with the UUP opportunities for co-operation and collaboration to build unionism as well.

So in 2011, my party will not be stirring up fear — we will be taking a positive message to the voters.

The DUP will seek to retain its status as the leading party for unionism and the leading party for Northern Ireland by looking to the future.

It will offer a positive vision, the strongest team and the best plan to steer Northern Ireland through the difficult years ahead as we deal with the Con-Dem cuts.

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