At the DUP’s Spring Conference on Saturday in Limavady, DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster used her speech to put herself at the centre of her party’s Assembly election campaign. (Party members even tweeted with the hashtag #ForwardWithArlene today … though it was hijacked a little with less DUP-friendly messaging.) A sensible strategy given the very high public approval ratings at present for her leadership.
Ten weeks on, that process of change and renewal continues.
I want to repay the faith that has been shown in me and do all in my power to help this Country and our people reach new heights.
As a mother, I understand the pressures and worries of families when it comes to relying on a strong health system, balancing the family budget, hoping there are real job opportunities.
As a politician, I am uniquely placed to help unite unionism and put an end to the decades of division we have seen.
But if we want to continue to lead the people of Northern Ireland, we must first make sure our own house is in order.
That’s why I want our party to set the standards in public life and not just to meet them. I want our members to know they are listened to and valued, and I want the public to get the best value from our political system.
If, in the months and years to come, that means taking difficult decisions to help restore confidence in the political system, I will take those decisions.
So far so good.
Setting and not just meeting the standards in public life is a good ambition for a party that is frequently featured in negative reporting of irascible exchanges in committee rooms and the Assembly chamber; questions about donations; and failure to challenge racist language when in conversation with members of the public.
Today I want to set out the five key priorities which will be at the very heart of my plan for a stronger Northern Ireland.
Firstly, I want to continue creating more jobs and increase incomes. In the last five years we have promoted over 40,000 jobs though foreign direct investment, business start ups and local support. With the reduction of Corporation Tax to 12.5% from April 2018 I believe we can create tens of thousands of jobs by 2020.
Secondly, I want to protect family budgets. Due to the tough decisions taken by DUP Finance Ministers, Northern Ireland continues to have the lowest household taxes anywhere in the UK. We pay half as much as people in England and around 60% of the average in Scotland. That means people living here get to keep more of their hard earned money than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. In this next Assembly term I want to continue protecting household budgets, ensuring we don’t raise a penny more in household taxes than is needed.
That’s a no to introducing water rates during the next Assembly term.
Thirdly, I will prioritise spending on the health service. I believe the single most important role for government in Northern Ireland is to provide the best possible health service for all of our people. That’s why our Health Ministers have employed 1200 more nurses and almost 300 more consultants. At the same time, we have tackled waste and saved £800m. To build on this work will involve a significant cross party agreement on reform but will also require prioritising funding. That’s why in the next five years we will increase the health budget by at least £1 billion to employ more doctors and nurses and to reduce waiting times.
Will the DUP need to secure both Finance and Health ministries during d’Hondt to pull this off?
Fourthly, I want to raise standards in education for everyone. We rightly take pride in the best of our education system, which produces better exam results than anywhere else in the UK. But we must make sure that every child is given a chance in life and the best possible education. I want to build an education system which does not play favourites but is fair to every sector, every school and every child.
And fifthly I want to invest in infrastructure for the future. That means building new schools, new roads and new hospitals so that Northern Ireland is prepared for the future. I want to see real investment in local communities and neighbourhoods so that everyone can take pride in where they live and improve their quality of life.
Having laid out the vision, now comes the crunch. To deliver this requires power, and that means continuing to have more MLAs than any other party.
I need the strongest mandate to implement our plan to build a stronger, safer, more stable Northern Ireland. That is why I am asking for the support of people from right across Northern Ireland, from people who have always loyally supported us and from people who are prepared to give us a chance.
I can’t promise the earth but I will promise to be as good as my word. If I’m asked a simple question, I will give a simple answer. I will not change course to court popularity but will always remain resolute to ensure I do what I believe is best for Northern Ireland. That may not always win me friends but I hope it will always win me respect.
It is on this basis that I will put myself forward to be returned as First Minister at the next election. At the heart of this election is an important choice for the community.
108 MLAs will be elected but in reality the next First Minister will either be me or Martin McGuinness. Your vote will decide. It’s that simple.
We have come too far to now turn to the untried and untested. There is too much at risk.
This is a time for political leaders, who have stood the test of time. It is the time for those who have made their name by having achievements of their own. It is time for those who are rooted in the community and have withstood the political battles to come out stronger.
My record shows I can work with anyone in the best interests of Northern Ireland but make no mistake Martin McGuinness and I have very different visions of the future of this country.
I want to work with our national government to bring about a better future, not against it. I want to make sure that we remember the past, not rewrite it. And I want to make sure that we have a fair and balanced peace process, not one where some are more equal than others.
It is a choice between his vision of taking this Province out of the United Kingdom and my vision to strengthen the Union.
Voting DUP to make sure Arlene Foster remains First Minister rather than her being deputy First Minister to Martin McGuinness is a cheap emotional shorthand for the DUP asking for enough votes to continue to have more MLAs than Sinn Féin so the DUP get to pick up more ministries than Sinn Féin when d’Hondt is run. It’s a way of saying “don’t vote for the UUP, TUV or UKIP” without having to name your rivals.
The order of the figure heads at the top of the Executive doesn’t matter. It might be a nuisance to have to swap over to the office at the other side of the hallway. It might be annoying no longer be able to slip into the Executive room via a side door in your office [if I remember the geography of Stormont Castle correctly]. It might mean being introduced and shaking hands second after the First Minister, but in terms of power and control, First Minister and deputy First Minister are equal posts. One can barely sneeze without the other agreeing in advance to sneeze immediately after.
While there is a certain amount of symbolism, the difference between First and deputy First Ministers does not need to be debilitating. It’s not humiliating to be deputy First Minister. It’s just a function of the level of electoral success. You get the office the voters feel you deserve.
If you’re not comfortable with Martin McGuinness being First Minister, you’re probably not comfortable with him being deputy First Minister either.
The DUP could agree to Sinn Féin’s suggestion that the names First and Deputy First are removed and the co-equal nature of the roles could be expressed in the names. But then there wouldn’t be a top dog and a deputy top dog.
What Northern Ireland needs now, more than ever, is strong unionist leadership. We need to move forward to a stronger future and not go back to the past. We must not allow all that has been achieved to be set back. Northern Ireland needs stability, not instability. We need a party with a plan and not half a dozen with competing and conflicting visions for the future.
That is what the DUP under my leadership will offer on the fifth of May. Division and instability would be disastrous for Northern Ireland and would put at risk everything that has been achieved. I have more respect for those who stand their ground than those who blow with the wind and will seek to be all things to all men.
On Election Day the people of Northern Ireland will be faced with a simple choice. I may not be on the ballot across the Province but a vote for our DUP candidates all across the country will return a unionist First Minister. People who vote for the DUP in East Belfast or East Antrim are voting for me to be the First Minister every bit as much as people who are living in Enniskillen. Northern Ireland needs strong leadership.
The message is clear but terribly simplified. Vote DUP to keep Arlene as First Minister because we know you wouldn’t want Martin in the role. Rather than vote DUP to maximise the number of ministries we control and maximise our influence for unionism over the Programme for Government and its delivery for everyone in NI.
The final section Arlene Foster’s speech returned to the theme of not allowing Martin McGuinness to become First Minister.
People seem to assume that this election is a foregone conclusion and that it has been decided even before a vote has been cast. Nothing could be further from the truth. Politics in Northern Ireland is tough and brutal. This election campaign will be no different.
Make no mistake, this election is very close. A swing of only two votes in every hundred from the DUP to Sinn Fein would see Martin McGuinness become the next First Minister.
There we go again. The bogeyman is knocking on the door of the office across the corridor. Whereas truthfully, Martin McGuinness would be very upset if he through being First Minister was actually in reach when he would only get to hold onto the role for a year or so before handing over to a Sinn Féin colleague like Conor Murphy.
Update – Nicholas Whyte has crunched the numbers to how much of a shift would be needed for Sinn Féin to overtake the DUP. Answer: a lot more than 2 votes in every 100 …
Their real agenda in the May election is to shred and split unionist votes. They didn’t make the breakthrough they wanted in the South and will do all they can to take Northern Ireland. They will seek to capitalise on a new and untested leader of the SDLP and on the complacency of some unionists. That would be bad for unionism and bad for Northern Ireland. It would take Northern Ireland in the wrong direction and send out the wrong message at this crucial time.
For many, including myself, power sharing with Sinn Fein is difficult but it is a price worth paying to keep Northern Ireland Moving Forward. But if you think it is difficult now just imagine what it would be like with a Sinn Fein First Minister and the Executive dominated by republicans.
That’s why we must stand our ground and fight for every vote. And it’s not just to stop a Sinn Fein First Minister, I want the mandate to promote my positive agenda for the future.
It’s about stopping something perceived as negative from happening … and promoting something positive as an afterthought. Fear first, vision second. Switch those round and it would sound so much more progressive.
But we can only deliver it if we get the support of the people at the ballot box. The next two months will determine the fate and fortunes of this party and of this country for decades to come. Every vote in every seat will matter. The stakes could not be higher. Not a single vote has yet been cast. The outcome will be for the people of Northern Ireland alone to decide. We serve at their pleasure and only with their consent.
The last paragraph:
I look forward to seeing you all on the campaign trail. Let us go out and make sure we can commemorate the sacrifice of 1916 and celebrate the centenary of Northern Ireland with unionism still in the driving seat.
The chances of Sinn Fein winning more seats than the DUP are very improbable. It’s not something Sinn Féin are contemplating at this election … though with Northern Ireland’s continued demographic change, it will become more probable over time.
While the speech contains the framework of the DUP’s vision that will be expanded upon during the Assembly campaign, playing the fear card before the election is a predictable and short term strategy.
It demeans unionist voters and suggests that the DUP isn’t properly listening to them. It says that the DUP don’t value their achievements and don’t believe that they can sell their vision strongly enough to convince voters to elect them to deliver it. Instead it says, vote for us because you wouldn’t like them.
It pretends that unionist voters don’t understand that you’re really saying don’t vote for the UUP, TUV and UKIP.
It’s inconsistent to tell people to believe Northern Ireland has a positive future on the one hand and then to encourage voting for a negative reason on the other.
The DUP should be proud of their record … or change the record!
Setting the standard in public life should maybe include not winding up sectarian sentiment or stoking political fears in the electorate.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.