DUP face day of reckoning
DUP face day of reckoning


The north’s largest unionist party is increasingly fearful ahead of next month’s Stormont Assembly election amid predictions that it could fall below the thirty seats it needs to hold on to its veto over political change in the north of Ireland.

At a bizarre launch of its election manifesto this week, DUP leader Arlene Foster refused to answer questions after making a tirade of accusations and attacks against Sinn Fein and its leader, Gerry Adams. Foster referred to Sinn Fein and Adams no less than 44 times in her speech, more than three times as often as she spoke about her own party.

She also avoided any reference to the RHI corruption scandal and then evaded growing questions over the funding of the DUP’s Brexit campaign by claiming to have “man flu”.

Sinn Fein said the focus on the party and Mr Adams was an attempt to deflect public attention away from the cash bonanza for Stormont political insiders.

The DUP’s silence fuelled speculation that the party was also fearful of being further scrutinised about the funding of a controversial pro-Brexit advert that appeared in Britain just days before last June’s EU referendum.

It has since emerged that the campaign was funded by a shadowy right-wing organisation called the Constitutional Research Council, alleged to have links to Saudi Arabia through its chairman Richard Cook, a former vice-chairman of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

Instead, Mrs Foster directed attention to what she said was a “very real prospect” that Sinn Fein would emerge as Stormont’s largest party and claimed that would be a “disaster for unionism”.

The DUP leader claimed opinion polls suggested it was “neck and neck between Gerry Adams/Sinn Fein and the DUP”. The UUP and SDLP were not running to win, she added, but “to stop the DUP from winning”. She also warned of the possibility of a Sinn Fein justice minister and, ironically, efforts to “rewrite the past” and a “sectarian abuse of power”.

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill told the DUP leader to “stop fixating on Gerry Adams”.

Ms O’Neill, who was recently named as leader of Sinn Fein in the North, said Mrs Foster needs to recognise that she is in charge of her party in the region, not Mr Adams.

“I think Arlene is fixated on Gerry Adams and I think she is fixated on the politics of fear. I think that’s a really unfortunate way you need to motivate your electorate.”

Ms O’Neill said she wouldn’t presume what the electorate will do. “I wouldn’t be that arrogant,” she said.

But she confirmed that she was ready to work with Ms Foster should Sinn Fein and the DUP be returned as the two biggest parties after the election. Differences on issues such as legacy, a border poll and an Irish language act were “not insurmountable”, she said.

“I want the institutions to work. Sinn Fein are committed to making the institutions work. We don’t need a new agreement. But we can only be in government with partners who are wedded to respect, equality and integrity,” she said.

However, the real concern for the DUP is that the party will fall below 30 seats in the reduced Assembly following the poll next Thursday. Under the new rules for this election, all of the constituencies have just five seats, one less than last year. Applying last year’s election results to the new set-up, the DUP is predicted by some commentators to lose up to nine seats, leaving it with 29. The fallout of the RHI scandal could further magnify these losses, while potentially opening to door to the smaller unionist parties such the right-wing UKIP or the loyalist PUP.

Assuming the Assembly is eventually restored, the DUP will need to enlist the support of other unionists in order to continue to block change.

Ms O’Neill warned against political instability in the aftermath of the election. “Political stability has been a key factor when it comes to attracting foreign direct investment, creating jobs, growing our economy,” she said.

“And the surest route to political stability is an Executive based on respect and integrity - an Executive that is not constantly undermined by financial scandals. There needs to be a sea-change in the working relationships and the conduct of the Executive.”

The Six Counties should be in control of their own economic destiny, she added. “We should have the confidence and the courage to take responsibility for our own economic future and to work together for the common good,” she said. “No-one has the luxury of working in silos.”

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