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Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster during an interview with the Belfast Telegraph at Stormont Castle on October 27th 2016, Northern Ireland (Photo by Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)

I'm focused on Northern Ireland, not divisive calls for unity poll

Arlene Foster


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Sinn Fein's David Cullinane addresses the media alongside Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin following the  "up the Ra" chant controversy.  Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Fein's David Cullinane addresses the media alongside Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin following the "up the Ra" chant controversy. Niall Carson/PA Wire

PA

Sinn Fein's David Cullinane addresses the media alongside Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin following the "up the Ra" chant controversy. Niall Carson/PA Wire

The outcome of the Republic of Ireland elections is a matter for the people of that jurisdiction. When a new government is formed, we will work constructively on matters of mutual concern to ensure Northern Ireland keeps moving forward with more jobs and better schools and hospitals.

With the votes all cast, Mary Lou McDonald and other newly elected Sinn Fein TDs have played to their grassroots with chants of "up the Ra" and all sorts of talk about a border poll.

How Sinn Fein interprets their mandate is a matter entirely between them and the Irish electorate. My only concern is the stability of Northern Ireland and moving Northern Ireland forward. The Irish Times/RTE exit poll points to some of the reasons why people voted in such numbers for Sinn Fein. Of those who said they voted Sinn Fein, 32% said healthcare was the issue, 26% said housing, 8% said their pension, 6% jobs and 1% Brexit.

When asked about a referendum in the next five years on a united Ireland, almost 20% of SF's voters didn't support it. A majority of Fine Gael voters didn't support it. A majority of Labour voters didn't support it. A majority of Green voters didn't support it. A majority of Social Democrat voters didn't support it. Only 52% of Fianna Fail voters wanted it.

The lack of enthusiasm for a united Ireland is borne out in polls in Northern Ireland too. At the general election just eight weeks ago, just over 38% of votes cast were for pro-united Ireland parties. That compares with 42% in the 2001 general election, 19 years ago.

Whether Protestant, Catholic or neither, most people realise that Northern Ireland's interests are best served as part of the United Kingdom. They want to be good neighbours to the Republic of Ireland, but they want to be part of the world's fifth largest economy, with a welfare system and NHS providing free healthcare for everyone living here.

Whilst some unionists shy away from debating the pros and cons of a united Ireland, and almost seem fearful of the debate, I have never been one of them because the case for the Union is so strong on economic, social, cultural and political grounds.

My main reservation relating to the continual talk of a border poll is that the debate is polarising and a total distraction from the challenges we need to tackle, such as our schools, roads, hospitals and broadband provision for people living and working here.

On Monday morning, I met the Deputy First Minister. We had an Executive meeting at 9.30am. I underscored that there must be no distraction from the priorities we have set as an Executive.

We must implement Bengoa and fix our hospitals. We must provide better services for those suffering mental ill-health.

We must get key infrastructure projects moving. We must tackle the problems in schools and we must make the big decisions to keep building a shared future in Northern Ireland.

The New Decade, New Approach deal was about acknowledging the diverse demographics in Northern Ireland. It was about recognising that people of British, Irish, and Northern Irish, as well as new and emerging identities, live here.

As the leader of the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, I want everyone to feel at home living here. I want everyone living here to have the best schools, hospitals, welfare system and economic prospects. That is my ambition. In that pursuit, mistakes will be made. There will be differences of opinion, but we will be failing the next generation on all sides if, on the basis of a 25% election result in Dublin, we enter a tailspin and a circular argument about a border poll for the next 12 months.

When Theresa May needed our support in 2017, we didn't use that influence to extract concessions which would only advance one narrow perspective in Northern Ireland. We used our influence to deliver £1bn more for schools, hospitals, mental health services, roads and rural broadband - issues that helped everyone.

If there are continual outbursts from Sinn Fein about "up the Ra" and border polls, such an approach will be narrow, divisive and ultimately a failure because we live in a diverse society where the only way forward is through consensus.

Arlene Foster is First Minister and DUP leader

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