DUP manifesto launch: Arlene Foster speech in full
Sinn Fein first minister 'a disaster for unionism'
DUP leader Arlene Foster has launched her party's manifesto at a Belfast hotel. Mrs Foster was too ill to take questions. Below is her speech.
"In ten days’ time the people of Northern Ireland will return to the polls in what will be the most important Assembly election in a generation.
What is at stake on 2 March is not just who fills what posts… but the very nature of devolution and the future direction of Northern Ireland.
And what makes this election even more important, is the very real prospect of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein exploiting the present situation to allow Sinn Fein to emerge for the first time ever in an Assembly election as Northern Ireland’s largest political party.
People need to understand why that really matters; why that really matters to them and their families.
This morning, I want to set out why this would be a disaster for unionism, and for Northern Ireland, and the platform on which the DUP will be seeking a mandate.
I also want to dispel the manufactured myth that devolution was not working, and could not work, and highlight just a few of the very real achievements of recent months.
Only nine months ago this party received a resounding mandate for our five-point plan and the manifesto we stood upon.
Today, rather than reinventing the wheel, we are asking for a renewed mandate for that plan.
Our plans for the next five years were sound nine months ago and they remain the basis for progress today.
Today, in addition to republishing our 2016 manifesto we are printing an update setting out our stance on the negotiations which will follow the election.
But first, I want to take a few minutes to remind people why it mattered that the DUP won the election last May and what has been delivered for people in Northern Ireland.
Winning 38 seats did not just mean there would be a unionist First Minister, it also meant that we would control the most government departments and have the best choice of those departments.
We used that strength to make sure that Northern Ireland had its first unionist Education Minister in almost 50 years, its first Agriculture Minister since the restoration of devolution, held the enormous and diverse Communities portfolio and retained responsibility for the economy.
In the Department for the Economy, Simon Hamilton has ensured that the number of people claiming unemployment related benefits in Northern Ireland has fallen by almost 6,000 in the last year, unemployment is now at its lowest level since 2008, exports by Northern Ireland companies rose by 6% in the past year making us the best performing UK region.
Nearly 5,000 new jobs have been promoted so far this year, our economy grew by 1.6% last year, with that growth being driven by the private sector, external visitor numbers increased by 8% last year to 2.5 million, the most ever recorded.
In the Department for Communities, Paul Givan has invested more in the Co-Ownership scheme and supported a Rent-To-Own scheme; and is transforming our town and city centres right across Northern Ireland with projects from Belfast to Enniskillen.
In the Department of Education, Peter Weir has removed the long-term ban on primary schools preparing their pupils for transfer and granted schools greater flexibility with their budgets and subject choices.
And in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Michelle McIlveen has made sure that Northern Ireland is the first region of the UK to pay advance CAP payments to farmers; and has introduced new capital grants for farmers to help grow their business.
I want to thank all of our outgoing Ministers for the work that they have done during their short time in office.
The long-term and ambitious programme the DUP presented to the voters in May 2016 remains as relevant now as it was a mere nine months ago.
We need to prioritise spending on our Health Service, create more jobs and increase incomes, protect family budgets, raise standards in education for everyone and invest in infrastructure.
These were the fundamental issues that we said would make a difference to people’s lives in May 2016.
If anything they are even more important today.
What we need is an Assembly back and working to deliver on this five-point plan to deliver the better future for Northern Ireland people want.
All of this is at stake on 2 March.
The choice is quite simple.
All of the recent polling confirms that this election will be neck and neck between Gerry Adams Sinn Fein and the DUP.
The other parties are trailing far behind. The reality is that if people vote for Mike they will not get Colum, they will just get Gerry Adams Sinn Fein with a strengthened hand in negotiations.
Colum Eastwood will do well if the SDLP return with ten seats at the election - and they are not even fielding enough candidates to compete with Sinn Fein.
Equally, even if Mike Nesbitt won every seat in which his party has even the remotest of chances, they cannot win more seats than Sinn Fein.
They are not running to win … they are now running to stop the DUP from winning.
That couldn’t be clearer from Mike’s advice of transferring to the SDLP without even getting a reciprocal agreement from the SDLP in advance.
I know other parties don’t like us saying it, but the reality is that every vote for another unionist party is a vote which is lost in the battle to make sure that Sinn Fein does not win this election.
Northern Ireland must be the only country in the world where people who contest elections claim that it does not matter who wins the elections.
Indeed, even some of the people who forced an unnecessary election seem to take this view.
So if someone on the doorstep asks if it matters if Sinn Fein wins the election, here are 10 reasons why it matters; why it really matters.
It would give republicans a massive mandate for their demands with the British Government. Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein would use an election victory as a justification for a border poll which would be divisive and destabilising.
Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein would use an election victory for vindication of their position that the border between the UK and the EU should be the Irish Sea and not the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein would take an election victory for republicans as a mandate to pursue their strategy of putting our soldiers and security forces in dock and of rewriting history.
By vindicating the decisions to force an election, it would not only make devolution harder to restore but would reward those who caused the crisis and make devolution permanently unstable. Make no mistake it is not the DUP, but the British Government that Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein want to be dealing with.
It would threaten our economic recovery by undermining the prospects for a reduction in Corporation Tax and make the needs of the Northern Ireland economy subservient to the narrow party political interests of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein.
If as Sinn Fein has sought, the Justice department is selected by d’Hondt, it would allow a Sinn Fein Justice Minister for the first time in history while the PSNI and Security Services state that the IRA Army Council still exists and some believe that it continues to control Sinn Fein.
It would lead to the sort of sectarian abuse of power that has been seen wherever Sinn Fein have been able to do so from the removal of the Union Flag at City Hall, to the glorification of convicted terrorists to the Ministerial abuse of office which has been adjudicated upon by the courts.
It would likely give Sinn Fein the power to run the most government departments in Northern Ireland with the ability to shape policy consistent with Gerry Adams all Ireland agenda in a thousand different ways.
It would give Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein a hugely significant world-wide propaganda boost just months after nationalisms worst election since 1993 and would undermine the unionist confidence which is being rebuilt after so many years in decline.
And finally, it would of course give Sinn Fein the right to nominate a First Minister.
Our job is to make sure that that does not happen.
Just 10 reasons why we must not allow Sinn Fein to become the biggest party at Stormont. There are many more. And that's why it is inexplicable, sad and shameful that Mike Nesbitt would urge people to transfer people to transfer to the SDLP ahead of other unionists.
This will not only have the impact of ensuring some unionist first preference votes essentially have the same impact as if they had been cast for nationalists, they also have the knock on impact of making it much more likely that Sinn Fein win the election.
There are undoubtedly constituencies where the DUP and Sinn Fein will be fighting it out for the final seat, meaning the transfers of eliminated Ulster Unionist candidates will be the crucial and deciding factor.
So even if the DUP were to have a small first preference vote lead over Sinn Fein, it could well be that Mike Nesbitt’s transfer advice could cost unionism the election. I hope and trust that unionist voters will not allow that to be the case.
Whatever happens on 2 March, it is clear that we will be heading into a period of negotiations immediately after the election.
That is why today, in addition to setting out our agenda for the next administration, I also want to set out our platform for the negotiations.
It is not our desire to construct red lines or barriers to the restoration of the Executive so rather than listing a series of demands, we are setting out a set of ten principles which will govern our negotiations.
1. We will work to avoid Direct Rule and get local government back at Stormont as quickly as possible. That means we will work with all of those who have a mandate to see if it is possible to get an Executive formed rather than handing powers back to the Westminster government.
2. Our demands in negotiations will be proportionate to those of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein. While we have always regarded the present arrangements as transitional to a more normal form of democracy, we are prepared to continue to work the present structures. However, if Sinn Fein are putting more fundamental changes on the agenda we will be happy to table our own long list of demands.
3. As has been the case since 2007, we remain committed to working constructively and in partnership with all those who are in an Executive after an election. The reality is that whatever the exact structures we have at Stormont, these will only work if the parties are prepared to work within them and work at them. As recently as last November, Sinn Fein accepted our good faith efforts and I hope once the election is out of the way that they will do so again.
4. We will respond positively to any proposals to increase transparency, accountability and to help the institutions function more effectively. It is clear there is a lack of confidence around the operation of devolution in Northern Ireland. We will support as an early action of a new Executive, the introduction of legislative and other measures to address these concerns.
5. We will not compromise on fundamental unionist principles in order to retain power. While we want to see devotion restored, we will honour the mandate on which we have been elected and maintain our consistent defence of the Union.
6. We will not permit the rewriting of the past or the persecution of the security forces. In this new political era, we will defend those who defended us through the dark days of the Troubles.
7. We will oppose any Border Poll outside the terms of the Belfast Agreement. As we have seen from Scotland, in the absence of any likely change in the status of Northern Ireland, a referendum on our future constitutional position would be divisive and damaging.
8. We will stand over those proposals for reform as set out in our ‘Making Stormont Work Better’ document which have not yet been delivered. While we have made significant progress in delivering on our commitments, a number of key changes remain outstanding.
9. We will work to ensure the full implementation of the Military Covenant in Northern Ireland. It is unacceptable that those who have served in our armed forces should be treated differently in Northern Ireland than they are in other parts of the UK.
10. We will honour all previous commitments we have made on the basis that republicans will honour theirs as well. Even after this unnecessary and damaging election, we will stand over the commitments that we have made in the past to help ensure politics works and people can have confidence moving forward.
We will judge – and we will ask others to judge us - against these ten principles for the negotiations.
We offer them as a sign of our good faith and our good will - and also as a test against which we will expect to be judged in the weeks ahead.
It is critical that Unionism enters these negotiations from a position of strength. While we will not be prepared to give in to radical republican demands, there is a danger that the government in the face of an election victory by Sinn Fein would be prepared to make compromises on the basis of the mandate they have won. This must not be allowed to happen.
The DUP has a wealth of experience in negotiations, both from within those members who are likely to be returned to the Assembly, as well as our MPs and MEP. In conjunction with Nigel Dodds, I will lead the negotiations after the election along with a strong team of MPs and MLAs.
No other unionist party has a fraction of the strength in depth of the DUP when it comes to negotiations.
For many years unionists came off second best in negotiations and Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein were able to advance their radical republican agenda. That all stopped when the DUP became the leading unionist party in 2003.
Since then, the DUP has gradually but steadily regained ground lost when the UUP was negotiating for Unionism. This culminated in the Stormont House Agreement and the Fresh Start Agreement, which represented another significant step forward for Unionism.
The reality is that it is because of Sinn Fein’s inability to deal with the DUP in negotiations, they have precipitated a crisis in which they will wish to deal directly with the UK government. That is why it is so important that the DUP wins a strong mandate to ensure that the government does not give in to Sinn Fein’s demands.
Finally, let me say a word about the future.
This has been a difficult period for devolution.
Sinn Fein has caused an unnecessary election.
The people of Northern Ireland are already suffering as a result.
No budget is in place, the health service waiting lists are not being tackled as quickly as they should be.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We can get back to business after a short and a sensible negotiation.
The DUP stands ready to do so.
In the months after the last election, things were working well.
They can be again.
The vision of Northern Ireland that I had last May is that same that I do today.
I want to see a strong, safe and stable Northern Ireland where every child has the opportunity to succeed, regardless of their background.
Where economic prosperity is achieved and shared across Northern Ireland
Where business can grow and create more jobs,
Where we value people from every background,
Where a dependable health system looks after us when we need it,
Where everyone takes pride in our country,
Where we change the way we do politics,
Where paramilitaries are gone for good,
Where victims can see justice done,
Where no one is permitted to rewrite the past,
Where we play a full part in the United Kingdom,
Where we make unionism stronger by bringing us together.
If we can win this election on 2 March we can work to make this vision a reality.
The election will be close.
The task ahead will be difficult but there is a job of work to be done.
After the election the time for blame and recrimination will be over.
It will be time to get down to work.
If this party is once again given the mandate to serve the people of Northern Ireland we will be honoured to do exactly that.
Let us all learn the lessons from the past few months,
Let us sort out the problems that exist but let us make sure that we get back to doing the work that those who elect us want to see done - the work that will make a real and positive difference to people's lives. The work that will keep Northern Ireland moving forward.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital