DUP leader Peter Robinson has poured scorn on the UUP for refusing to merge the two parties while proposing that they could link up after the election.
He was speaking after the launch of his party’s 44 candidates for the Assembly election at the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast yesterday.
Under Assembly rules, the largest party selects the First Minister.
Last week UUP leader Tom Elliott suggested that if Sinn Fein topped the poll then unionists could come together in a single Assembly party to defeat the republicans after the election.
Mr Robinson believes this is legally impossible.
“The only link-up that legally matters in choosing First Minister is if we become one party,” he said. “You have to, in every respect, be behaving as one political party with one leader.
“We in the DUP have made it clear that we are prepared to work towards that, but the Ulster Unionists turned it down.”
He added: “Tom Elliott came in on the basis of a commitment that he wouldn’t merge with the DUP.”
Mr Elliott said last night that no merger proposals had been made since he was elected leader, but confirmed that he was firmly opposed to a pre-election merger. There were unionist unity talks, convened by the Orange Order, before he was elected and he has not continued them.
In a move away from the DUP’s tub-thumping origins, Mr Robinson intends fighting the election “on issues like jobs, the economy and education”, not the border.
“The people will have the final say on that voting in a referendum. It isn’t an issue in this election because the DUP has also ensured that no decisions are taken by this Executive unless they are approved by the largest unionist party,” Mr Robinson said.
In a speech, Mr Robinson listed his differences with the other political parties solely in terms of bread and butter policies.
He differed from Sinn Fein “on a whole range of policies, from their approach to the economy to their opposition to academic selection in education”.
His main difficulty with the SDLP, the other nationalist party, was its support for 50/50 recruitment in the PSNI.
He opposed the Alliance Party because it supported water charges, and accused the UUP of supporting “the cuts in public expenditure in Northern Ireland”.
The absence of debate and uncertainty over constitutional issues may be one factor which has led to a fall-off of unionist voting numbers.
The DUP vote reached a record high in the last Assembly elections and Mr Robinson said that vote management would be the key to building on those gains.
He gave East Belfast, his own constituency, as an example. |Alliance won the Westminster seat off him and is hoping to increase its Assembly seats there from one to two.
“We have three candidates” Mr Robinson said.
“We have divided the constituency into three, and I have the smallest area because I have the highest profile.
“The aim is to keep the vote of each candidate roughly equal so that they all stay there for the longest period of time.”
He hopes to attract new voters because of the DUP’s record on the economy. Mr Robinson said that due to the DUP, household taxation in Northern Ireland, such as rates and water rates, was roughly half the UK average, and that infrastructural investment was at an historic high.
He listed his priorities in the new Assembly as “more jobs, tougher sentences, low rates, fix education, better health, work together and strengthen unionism”.