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Arlene Foster targets unlikely DUP seat in West Belfast


DUP leader Arlene Foster

DUP leader Arlene Foster

The party manifesto for 2016

The party manifesto for 2016

DUP leader Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster will launch her first manifesto as DUP leader in West Belfast today - a constituency usually regarded as a political wasteland for unionism.

The First Minister will make the trek from her Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency to West Belfast to present her party's blueprint.

And in a different approach to her predecessor, the DUP will be the first of the main parties out of the blocks with a manifesto for May's Stormont election.

The DUP will be standing a total of 44 candidates across Northern Ireland - but has surprisingly decided to prioritise West Belfast.

Regarded widely as a republican heartland, the constituency is still home to a sizeable loyalist minority, mainly in the Shankill Road area. In the 2011 Assembly election, Sinn Fein took five of the six available seats, with the other one going to Alex Attwood of the SDLP.

While it might seem an unlikely place for the DUP to cause an upset, Diane Dodds won her 2003 West Belfast seat with 2,544 votes - a 7.7% share.

Frank McCoubrey, a former Belfast deputy Lord Mayor first elected to the City Council in 1997 as a member of the UDA-linked Ulster Democratic Party, took 2,773 votes last year - a 7.8% share.

Mrs Foster is expected to say today: "Make no mistake, we are here today to demonstrate our determination to see Frank McCoubrey win a seat for unionism in West Belfast on May 5. From the upset victory of Diane Dodds in 2003 we know that this can be done, and the West Belfast seat can be won.

"But to do it unionists from all backgrounds and traditions must turn out to vote and transfer to one another.

"So what was done for unionism in 2003 I believe can be done again in 2016."

Last year Sinn Fein's Paul Maskey topped the Westminster poll in the worst SF performance in West Belfast since 1996. People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll came a surprise second, and pundits predict he could take one of those seats and upset Sinn Fein vote management.

The DUP has traditionally left manifesto launches until later in the campaign. Last year Peter Robinson left it until April 21, when polling was on May 7.

But Mrs Foster said: "This year we are launching our plan early so that people have plenty of time to read and consider our blueprint for the next five years.

"I want this plan to be the backbone of our campaign and our pledge to the country for the next Assembly term - a plan I want to implement as First Minister on the morning of May 6.

"This is more than just a plan between now and election - this is our pledge as a party, and my pledge as First Minister, to the voters, for the next Assembly term.

"The DUP has a clear vision for a stronger, safer future - we are ambitious for Northern Ireland and want the opportunity to build on what we have achieved to date.

"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 next generation."

While the party has kept the manifesto contents close to its chest, Mrs Foster outlined her priorities in her first speech as party leader at the DUP's annual spring conference last month.

They included creating jobs and increasing incomes, protecting family budgets, prioritising spending on the health service and raising standards in education. And when she took over the reins in December, Mrs Foster vowed that "no child will be left behind in the Northern Ireland that we are building".

Belfast Telegraph