It is good to be on the campaign trail and to be in East Belfast this morning, where we have an excellent DUP MP in Gavin Robinson and two excellent Assembly candidates in Joanne Bunting and David Brooks.
We all know Northern Ireland is a great place to live, work and raise a family.
But it can be even better.
We have a bright future to look forward to, because those who came before us believed in Northern Ireland and in the Union.
Northern Ireland’s strong place in the Union has created jobs, improved our standard of living and given us the NHS.
Over the last five years, with the support of the people, the DUP has fought for and delivered more for health services, greater investment in infrastructure, more jobs and education.
As we come out of COVID, and post Brexit there is much to be done to ensure, as a people, we come through stronger, more prosperous and more unified.
In just 31 days' time Northern Ireland will go to the polls in what will be one of the most consequential elections in our history.
The choice facing the people of Northern Ireland is clear.
The people will decide whether Northern Ireland’s future is one focused on fixing our health system, tackling the cost of living crisis and replacing the Protocol or focused on a divisive Border Poll.
The DUP has a five-point plan to build a better future for Northern Ireland within the Union, by supporting and boosting our National Health Service, growing our economy and creating jobs, tackling the cost of living crisis, securing a better education system and negotiating the removal of the Irish Sea border.
Sinn Fein are counting on unionists being divided and demoralised.
They know that’s their only route to victory.
But that’s not the message I am hearing on the doorstep. Unionists know it’s important to unite.
We have done it before, and we can do it again.
At the last Assembly election we were just 1200 votes ahead of Sinn Fein but just two months later we outpolled them by over 50,000 votes.
It will be those unionists who will decide the outcome of this election.
And it is our duty to persuade them of our plan. They know that the UUP can’t win and the TUV won’t win.
Over the next four weeks we will take our positive five-point plan to every part of Northern Ireland.
Our five-point plan is a plan to build a better future for Northern Ireland, within the Union, by:
Fixing our National Health Service,
Growing our economy,
Helping working families,
Working to see the removal of the Irish Sea Border,
And keeping our schools world-class.
Our five-point plan is about moving Northern Ireland forward, working together and focusing on what matters.
As part of our plan we will drive down waiting lists by investing an extra £1 billion, deliver an additional 750,000 hospital assessments and procedures and train more GPs.
We want to reward frontline staff by ending dependency on agencies.
And at this election the DUP makes clear that we support the implementation of the Bengoa recommendations to fix our NHS.
The DUP is pledging to help working families as part of our plan.
We have a forty-year record of low local taxes. The DUP will use its mandate to help working families across our Province.
As part of our plan to help working families we will deliver in the next mandate 30 hours free childcare per week and we will ensure there is fair access to pre-school places.
And we want to ensure working families are not forgotten by delivering an Energy Support Payment to hard-pressed households.
The DUP plan will help keep our schools world-class. We all want to see better schools but only the DUP will take the steps necessary to secure a fair funding model for all schools, to build more new schools in the next 5 years and improve services for pupils with special educational needs.
It is the DUP that has defended academic selection against the onslaught of those who would destroy parental choice.
Just last month our education minister announced £794 million investment for 28 new schools benefitting 25,000 pupils.
And at this election we are campaigning for a cap on school uniform costs and to widen access to breakfast and homework clubs.
We all want to see a stronger economy but only the DUP has made it a top priority since the Executive was reformed in 2007.
Our plan to grow the economy will build on our strong record by making Northern Ireland a place attractive and ready for investors.
We will support the creation of 20,000 new jobs in the next five years, deliver fibre broadband to all parts of Northern Ireland and make tourism a £2 billion industry.
At this election we make clear that the Northern Ireland Protocol must be removed and replaced with arrangements that restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.
Our 5-point plan is about ensuring everyone in Northern Ireland moves forward together.
Our plan is about ensuring we move in the right, not the wrong direction.
I am absolutely delighted to be leading our 30 strong team of candidates into this election.
We have a blend of tried and tested candidates who have served their communities in the Assembly as well as new candidates.
Our team is a blend of youth and experience. Each one of them is connected to the communities they seek to represent and they understand the needs of our people.
This election also marks a generational change with a range of candidates contesting seats across Northern Ireland for the first time.
Every single one of our candidates is fighting to win and every one of our thirty candidates CAN be elected.
Can I particularly welcome Diane Forsythe, Alan Robinson, Philip Brett, Brian Kingston, Paul Bell, David Brooks, Jennifer Gilmour, Harry Harvey, Deborah Erskine and Stephen Dunne who are all fighting an Assembly election for the first time though Harry, Deborah and Stephen have been in the Assembly for some time.
I am sure they will strengthen our existing team at Stormont where no fewer than ten of our other candidates have served as Ministers or Junior Ministers, including myself and Diane Dodds who are fighting our first Assembly elections in a while!
Can I also pay tribute to the sterling public service and duty given by our outgoing members Paula Bradley, William Humphrey, Robin Newton, George Robinson and Jim Wells and thank them for all that they have done in service for their country and for this party.
We think especially today of the many happy memories of our colleague Christopher Stalford and our thoughts are with Laura and his family at this time.
The time ahead will be crucial for Northern Ireland.
That’s why it’s so important that unionism has a leadership with a track record of achievement.
This election is a wake up call for those who support the Union.
This is not the time to have unionism fractured, and weakened. It is not the time for fellow unionists to be attacking one another and it is not the time to take a chance on those who are not tried and tested.
Our team has decades of experience that will be vital in the coming months.
At the last Assembly election we secured representation in seventeen out of the eighteen constituencies. And I hope after a gap of fifteen years Frank McCoubrey can once again ensure unionists are represented in West Belfast.
My public service in Northern Ireland goes back a long way.
I was first elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1985 and since then I have had the honour to serve as a local councillor, an MLA and junior Minister, and as a Member of Parliament since 1997.
There is little that I have not seen in recent decades having been involved at almost every level of public service in Northern Ireland.
I am seeking election to the Assembly so that in its next mandate I can serve the people of Lagan Valley and Northern Ireland using the skills and experience I have built up over almost four decades.
I want us to contribute to make Northern Ireland a better place, using our plan as the roadmap in the Assembly’s next term.
I want Northern Ireland to work for everyone.
That’s not just the right thing to do; it will also help strengthen our position in the United Kingdom.
I got involved in politics because I wanted to serve the entire community. I still do.
I believe in devolution and want to see it work.
Northern Ireland has changed and continues to change.
For the most part that has been a positive development, but it also means in a changing society it is even more important that there continues to be a strong voice for those who believe in the Union
I want to broaden and deepen support for Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. I want us to build a better Northern Ireland not just for people who share our unionism but also for all of our people.
Being part of the Union is good for everyone in Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland is good for the United Kingdom.
We shouldn’t be afraid to make the case for the Union at every opportunity.
The case for a united Ireland is based on economic myths and fantasy politics; the political facts of life are unionist.
But people need to turn out and vote for it on Election Day or Northern Ireland will face months arguing and fighting about a divisive border poll.
We are an integral part of the fifth largest economy in the world with all the access to the best possible schools, universities, jobs and business opportunities. The Union delivers these benefits.
Is it any wonder that so many Irish people choose to move to live in the United Kingdom?
Along with other regions of the UK, we benefit from the economic union though transfer payments of £10-15 billion per year to help support public services in Northern Ireland.
This was never more obvious than during the pandemic when we benefitted from the UK-wide furlough scheme and the hugely successful vaccine roll out.
We need to fix the NHS but it is one of the great British institutions and is the envy of many across the border and across the world.
Because we are part of the United Kingdom, we don’t need to spend EU60 every time we want to see a GP but enjoy a health service that is free at the point of need.
But the Union is about more than economic benefits; it is about bonds of history, family and culture that tie us all together.
The NHS, the Monarchy, the Armed Forces, the Premier League, the National Trust and yes, even the BBC are part of the fabric of our everyday lives.
Membership of the United Kingdom also gives Northern Ireland, with a population of less than two million people a place on the world stage.
We are part of the G7, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and NATO and the response to the invasion of Ukraine shows how important the UK continues to be on the world stage.
Devolved government in Belfast gives unionists and nationalists a real say in many of the issues that affect our everyday lives.
I want to see all of our political institutions up and running and working to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
Our system of government is far from perfect, and needs further reform, but I believe in devolution. It's good for unionism and its good for Northern Ireland.
I don’t need to tell you that many of the decisions that we have objected to most over the last ten years have not been taken at Stormont but at Westminster.
Anyone who believes that having no say in our future is a recipe for success simply hasn’t learnt the lessons of history.
But we must build our political institutions on solid foundations.
The Protocol has harmed Northern Ireland and it does not enjoy Unionist support.
Pretending problems don’t exist is not a solution.
It is hard to argue that having 20% of all EU checks in a country with a population of 1.9m is in any way proportionate or reasonable.
There are those who say that the Protocol represents the best of both worlds, but that’s not the reality on the ground – even with only a partial implementation.
With grace periods and other measures in place, we have seen only a fraction of the Protocol implemented but it is already taking a toll on our economy and the political process.
It is an undisputed fact that Northern Ireland purchases from Great Britain are four times more valuable than from the Republic of Ireland.
Barriers to trade have been created with our largest market, inevitably leading to devastating consequences. Every day Northern Ireland is subjected to some new protocol problem that bedevils a business, a consumer, a sector or the population.
Every day, it is estimated that £2.5 million is the cost of the Protocol to our economy.
The Protocol is a cost of living issue.
It’s not a question of addressing the Protocol or addressing the cost-of-living crisis – the Protocol is contributing to the cost-of-living crisis.
At a time when households and businesses can least afford it, haulage costs between GB and Northern Ireland have risen by 27% as a direct result of the Protocol.
Indeed, it has been estimated by the University of Ulster Business School’s senior economist, Dr Esmond Birnie that the Protocol could add several hundred million annually to Northern Ireland’s grocery bills. The reality is that trade friction with Great Britain is fuelling the cost-of-living crisis.
The £500 million Trader Support Scheme and the so-called grace periods, which have temporarily shielded Northern Ireland from the worst excesses of the Protocol, will soon come to an end.
The rigorous implementation of the Protocol would devastate trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And if the retail easements, which were due to finish in April 2021, were to end it would have a devastating impact on supermarkets.
The checks on the Irish Sea border are the symptom of the underlying problem, namely, that Northern Ireland is subject to a different set of laws imposed upon us by a foreign entity without any say or vote by any elected representative of the people of Northern Ireland.
The DUP is seeking the restoration of democratic decision making to the Assembly replacing the democratic deficit created by the Protocol.
At times it has felt as though unionists alone have stood out against this situation.
But it is not just unionist businesses and consumers that have been and will be impacted. Others are joining the cause. The UK Government’s Command Paper last summer was a step in the right direction, but we need agreement or unilateral action.
And even the EU has backed away from their unbending opposition to change.
The terms of debate have fundamentally changed. Slowly but surely our strategy is working.
Last September I said that the prize of a successful outcome is not just for unionism but for all of Northern Ireland and it is not just for the UK but for the EU as well. Just imagine how a deal which satisfies all sides could transform relationships within Northern Ireland and across Europe.
I still find it unbelievable that in September 2020 Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance and the Green Party all called for the rigorous implementation of the Protocol. It is even more remarkable that Mary Lou McDonald has stood over that decision.
I do believe that progress can be made either by agreement or unilaterally. Given the progress that has been made in reshaping the debate, this is not the time to take the pressure off.
The Protocol must be replaced with arrangements that protects Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.
We will judge any new arrangements against our 7 tests to determine whether they respect Northern Ireland’s position as part of the UK
Elections have consequences.
Sinn Fein makes no secret of the fact they want to win this election to argue for and implement their plan for a Border Poll.
Their ambition is to be the biggest political party and leading the Governments in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. They are massively ahead in every major opinion poll in the Republic of Ireland.
If Sinn Fein wins the most seats in this election then Northern Ireland will face months and years of arguing and fighting about a divisive Border Poll rather than fixing our health service and focusing on rebuilding and growing our economy.
On Irish commentator recently wrote, “If Mary Lou McDonald becomes Taoiseach and Michelle O’Neill is elected First Minister, the calls for a referendum on Irish unity would probably become almost deafening.”
Now is not the time for more division and uncertainty.
In Northern Ireland the DUP is the only party that can beat Sinn Fein.
When we remove the long shadow of the Protocol from Northern Ireland I want to see a period of renewed focus on the issues that matter so we can implement our plan for the health service and get on with creating more and better jobs.
Sinn Fein want you to forget about the events of the last five years and to pretend they did not happen.
Michelle O’Neill has spoken of the unity of purpose of the Executive during the Covid Pandemic but made no mention that within days of its outbreak in Northern Ireland she broke the unity of the Executive and attacked Robin Swann. Or that she and her party colleagues were prepared to publicly break the guidelines she had helped set and then refused to make any meaningful apology for it.
The last Assembly term was blighted by Sinn Fein’s refusal to form an Executive for three years, creating many of the challenges we face today.
And they threatened it again last summer.
At this election we want to maximise the number of unionist MLAs elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. We believe in unionist co-operation.
I have no hesitation in recommending that people transfer to other unionist candidates after they have voted DUP. That does not mean we endorse every policy that they have but that we wish to maximise unionist representation in the Assembly.
In the last Assembly election there was only one more ‘unionist’ elected than ‘nationalist’. That wasn’t just down to a lower percentage of unionists turning out to vote but of unionists failing to transfer. That’s not a luxury that we can afford at this election.
Votes are lost by a failure to transfer. In the 2017 Assembly election seats were lost both because unionists didn’t turn out but also because they did not transfer down the ballot paper.
In the 2017 Westminster election unionism demonstrated how it could come together to maximise unionist representation.
With an increased unionist turnout and effective transfers unionism can do so again.
The choice at this election is both clear AND stark.
Sinn Fein wants a mandate for a destabilising and divisive border poll. They do not hide their desire.
They want to plunge Northern Ireland into years of division and uncertainty. Their real focus is not the heath service or the cost-of-living crisis; it is in Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Adams’ own words, ‘to make history’.
We want to work together to focus on fixing our health service, rebuilding and growing our economy and tackling the issues that matter to all of us.
At this election, a first preference vote for any other unionist party risks dividing unionism and allowing Sinn Fein to come through a split unionist vote to win.
Voting DUP and then transferring to other Unionist candidates will allow unionists to win and maximise the number of Unionist MLAs in the new Assembly
May 5th will decide the future direction of Northern Ireland and whether we concentrate on issues like fixing our health system, tackling the cost of living crisis and replacing the Protocol or whether we focus on a divisive Border Poll.
That is why we must win.
And that is why, on 5 May I believe we will deal a blow to Sinn Fein’s border poll ambitions.