Split unionist vote would bolster SF’s border poll demands, says Foster as DUP launches manifesto
Arlene Foster has warned unionists that they must vote for the DUP or risk strengthening nationalist demands for a border poll.
The DUP leader also said her party was the only one strong enough to unite unionism during a speech at the launch of the party's 40-page manifesto for the forthcoming local council elections on May 2.
She argued that every first preference vote for another unionist party "runs the risk of dividing unionism", adding that it also risked "returning fewer unionist councillors" and "bolstering Sinn Fein demands for a divisive" Irish border poll.
"Some claim it does not matter which party you vote for but you can be absolutely certain that it would be heralded as a massive success for republicans and a massive defeat for unionism if unionism was to be split and republicans were to have a massive win - and use the election results to strengthen their demand for a border poll," Mrs Foster said.
Many of her party's 172 candidates attended the official launch event at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast yesterday, as did the majority of the DUP's 28 MLAs.
The party leader welcomed candidates and colleagues "to Ravenhill - a place that many of us come to on many occasions to support Ulster and to stand up for the Ulstermen", adding: "We're standing up for the Ulster men and women today."
"We believe in strong unionist co-operation and that is why this party encourages people, after giving their preference for DUP candidates, to further transfer to other pro-Union candidates in the election," she said.
"We all know in our hearts that unionism can't afford to be divided, but the DUP is the only party strong enough to unite around.
"Every first preference vote for another unionist candidate or another unionist party runs the risk of dividing unionism, returning fewer unionist councillors, and bolstering Sinn Fein demands for a divisive border poll.
"We are living in profound political times and there can be no doubting in these times that every vote matters."
During her speech Mrs Foster said "the important point" was that "no other party delivered a single penny for the services people rely on".
Deputy leader Nigel Dodds said a vote for his party is a vote for a return to the institutions at Stormont, which collapsed in January 2017 following a breakdown in relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
"So much more could have been achieved with a working Assembly," he said.
"The DUP has never seen influence in London and power in Belfast as a choice.
"The fact is the most will be delivered for Northern Ireland when they work together.
"It is unacceptable for Sinn Fein to hold the institutions and decisions on health, education and jobs to ransom for political demands.
"A vote for the DUP is a vote for the Assembly back now."
Mr Dodds also warned unionists who disagree with the DUP on social and moral issues or Brexit against registering a protest vote against them at the council elections. He said that was because the job of Stormont First Minister is not at stake.
There is "no such thing as a free hit" when it comes to elections, the deputy leader said.
In its manifesto, the DUP commits to what it calls a real-terms cut in rates by keeping any rises below the level of inflation over the full council term.
The document states that there should be further discussion on whether councils should get additional powers to regenerate towns and villages.
But it says that if this happened there would have to be improved protections for minorities.
It argues that those already in place have proved highly ineffective in protecting unionists in western and border areas.
The DUP said it also wants to see more play parks and leisure facilities made fully accessible for people with disabilities.
The party says it is not good enough that while there are nearly 900 play parks in Northern Ireland, in some council areas only 105 of those facilities have inclusive play equipment.
On Brexit, the DUP manifesto states that the UK's vote to leave the EU must be honoured but Northern Ireland cannot be subjected to onerous new trade barriers within the UK.
According to the Belfast Agreement, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State has the authority to call a border poll "if at any time it appears likely… that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland".
The DUP has consistently been the party with the biggest vote in Northern Ireland, while Sinn Fein has the second biggest.
At the 2017 Westminster election, the DUP won 292,316 votes, while Sinn Fein took 238,915.