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Yes, it does matter who's the next First Minister, and I don't want it to be Martin McGuinness

In recent days, this newspaper has reported remarks by those seeking election to the Assembly that demean the role of the First Minister and its significance at home and abroad.

Few suggestions can be more absurd than the notion that it does not matter who wins the election, or who the country's First Minister is.

This claim is deeply cynical and runs the real risk of unionists splitting the vote and allowing Martin McGuinness to become First Minister by default.

Does anyone seriously believe that, in 2016, the image of a Sinn Fein First Minister being elected would not just make news in Northern Ireland, but right around the world?

It would be a seismic shock to politics in Northern Ireland and a devastating blow to unionism to be defeated at the Assembly elections.

Some people claim that it won't happen, but the reality is that in two of the last three elections Sinn Fein have won more votes than the DUP. Indeed, in the only opinion poll published during this election, Sinn Fein were running almost neck and neck with the DUP.

For unionists, there can be no room for complacency and no mistake about why it matters. The facts are clear. The position of First Minister is not the same as the position of Deputy First Minister. In 1998 they were not created equal and have never been equal in status.

It is, of course, the case that statutory functions in OFMDFM are jointly exercised; however, there is so much more to the role than the work of the department.

The First Minister, as leader of the largest party in the Assembly, gets the first choice of departments in the Executive and is almost certain to have more picks than the Deputy First Minister. If Martin McGuinness were to become First Minister, the reality is that there would almost certainly be a non-unionist majority on the Executive and unionists would be consigned to running a minority of the government departments in Northern Ireland.

The symbolism of the role is also enormous and sends out a message of who we are and what we stand for as a society. Make no mistake: Arlene Foster has a very different vision for Northern Ireland than Martin McGuinness.

Any of these reasons alone would justify the significance of unionists holding the post of First Minister. However, taken together, they make the case clear and utterly compelling.

No serious commentator would suggest that anyone other than Arlene Foster or Martin McGuinness will be First Minister after this election. That means that the choice for unionists on Thursday, May 5 is absolutely clear.

As a unionist, I have no hesitation in saying that I want Arlene Foster elected as First Minister.

  • Nigel Dodds is DUP MP for North Belfast

Belfast Telegraph