In just seven days’ time Northern Ireland will go to the polls to elect local councillors to our eleven councils.
Make no mistake this election is not only important because it will set the direction of our Councils over the next four years, but its outcome is also being closely watched both nationally and internationally.
The work of our local government councillors in Northern Ireland is important, even if sometimes it does not receive the spotlight it deserves. I am pleased that we are fielding 152 candidates from all walks of life, with a vibrant mix of skills, youth and experience.
Today, we publish our positive plan for local government in Northern Ireland over the next four years, which sets out real action, at lowest cost on the issues that matter to the everyday lives of everyone in Northern Ireland.
Our manifesto, is a blueprint for the future and is the basis upon which all our DUP candidates are standing at this election.
At its heart we have a very clear vision for Northern Ireland.
The DUP is in the business of laying solid foundations for Northern Ireland so our children and grandchildren can succeed. We know that Northern Ireland is a great place and that its people have even greater potential.
Our goal for every council is to deliver the best services at the lowest possible cost to rate-payers.
The Democratic Unionist Party has always championed the cutting of wasteful spending and keeping the rates burden to a minimum for hard-pressed rate-payers.
That means focusing on what matters rather than political pet projects.
Too often some parties in Councils would prefer to focus on the issues over which they have no power and which don’t impact on our day-to-day lives – and they do so at the expense of the core council functions which the public rightly expect to be delivered efficiently and at the lowest possible cost.
Our five-point promise to the people of Northern Ireland is that we will use the mandate given to us by the people to:
Seek to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly on a fair and sustainable basis by finishing the job of protecting NI’s place in the UK and its internal market;
Work within Councils to protect and deliver core services at real value and lowest cost to ratepayers;
Build stronger and safer communities by targeting Council spending on what really matters to local ratepayers;
Promote and deliver regeneration for our villages, towns and city centres;
And in our King’s Coronation year, we will co-operate with other unionists, to strengthen our rich heritage and culture.
We have been taking our message to doorsteps in every village, town and city across Northern Ireland.
Last year at the launch of our Assembly election manifesto I said that, “I make no apology for saying that I want to see Unionists working together in a spirit of co-operation and with purpose.”
Today just over one year on I again make no apology for encouraging unionists to vote for the DUP and then transfer their further preferences to other Pro-Union candidates.
Now is not the time for more division.
Throughout our engagement on the doors in this campaign it is clear that those who support the Union want to see a unity of purpose amongst their elected representatives.
Transfers will matter and the decisions taken next Thursday will help shape the direction of Northern Ireland over the next few years.
The last election must act as a wake-up call for Unionists. Divided votes handed seats to the opponents of the Union.
Some said the DUP would “weaken” after that election. It was a lie then and we are pledged to continue to stand firm after this election until we have properly secured and protected our place within the United Kingdom.
The truth that many political representatives don’t want to hear is that the Protocol upset the delicate political balance in Northern Ireland and was not supported by the Unionist community.
Our judgement and our principled position in opposing the Protocol in Parliament and at Stormont has been vindicated.
When others said there would be no re-negotiation and no change our determination has proved what can be achieved.
The outcome of the recent UK-EU negotiations, the Windsor Framework, while undoubtedly representing significant progress across a number of areas does not deal with some of the fundamental problems at the heart of our current difficulties.
The Democratic Unionist Party, whilst welcoming progress, has carefully assessed the Windsor Framework and taken time to consult the wider public through the establishment of a panel to hear the views of a wide range of stakeholders across Northern Ireland.
Having received the report from our Panel and assessed all elements of the Windsor Framework we have concluded that the Framework does not meet our seven tests as set out in our 2022 Assembly election manifesto.
Consequently, more work is required by the UK Government if we are to secure the necessary conditions for a return to the Northern Ireland Executive.
At this election we are seeking support for our principled stand to finish the job and build the necessary solid foundations for a return of local accountable government at Stormont.
We want to see the restoration of the Assembly and Executive on the basis that democratic decision making is in the hands of locally elected representatives, rather than them having no say over some of the laws governing our economy and our people.
Following our assessment of the Windsor Framework we have identified a series of key areas of concern:
The fact that the proposals do not in themselves adequately remedy the harm done by the Protocol to Article 6 of the Acts of Union and our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom;
The UK Government gave a commitment in the New Decade New Approach Agreement to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK Internal Market and this remains unfinished business;
Notwithstanding the proposal to remove certain barriers to trade between GB and NI under the Framework, we will want to see further work in this area, consistent with the NDNA commitment that protects our place in the internal market and our economic rights under Article 6 of the Acts of Union;
The implications of the continued application of EU law without consent in Northern Ireland under the Windsor Framework. Why should those Northern Ireland businesses that do not trade with the EU and only trade within the United Kingdom be required to follow EU laws? This area will need further exploration and resolution by the Government;
Greater flexibility is needed in the operation of the proposed green and red lanes, to ensure that goods moving within the UK Internal Market can flow more freely;
And on the proposed Stormont Brake we must be clear that any mechanism exercised by 30 MLAs is effective in law and will enable locally elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to determine whether amended or new laws are vetoed by the UK Government.
We are continuing to campaign to secure further advancements in these areas, doing so in the knowledge that what has already been achieved was because we were not prepared to accept the undermining of Northern Ireland’s place within the Union.
For our part we are pledged to do everything possible to prevent a situation where Northern Ireland diverges from its most important market that being the rest of the United Kingdom.
We want to see a return to the delicate political balance within Northern Ireland where the views of unionists are valued and respected and cross-community consensus is the way that we deliver stability and prosperity for all our people.
As Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party we have the ultimate responsibility of ensuring we get the right outcome that respects Northern Ireland’s place in the Union for the long-term.
The Democratic Unionist Party and its candidates are pledged to put Northern Ireland first.
On 18th May Unionists have a clear choice. They can back the Democratic Unionist Party candidates and strengthen our position as we seek to finish the job of restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom or unionism can divide and splinter, costing seats and influence in our councils and helping to hand seats and influence to those who would further weaken the Union.
From travelling throughout Northern Ireland I know that our support is building. People recognise what is at stake.
Let us use the next seven days to finish the job so we can deliver on our pledges for everyone in Northern Ireland.
Next Thursday if you want Northern Ireland to move forward together where everyone is respected then use your vote to strengthen our hand and ensure Unionism speaks with a strong and united voice.