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Arlene Foster assumed low campaign profile for fear of sparking nationalist backlash, says academic

DUP leader Arlene Foster canvases in Monsktown, Co Antrim on a relatively rare campaign appearance. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Arlene Foster took a "back seat" during the Westminster election campaign because it was feared she would motivate nationalists to vote for Sinn Féin, a leading expert on the DUP has claimed.

Professor Jon Tonge from the University of Liverpool and author of the 2014 book 'The Democratic Unionist Party : From Protest to Power', said the former first minister latterly chose to adopt a low profile amid advisers' concerns that her campaigning would prove counter-productive.

When Mrs Foster compared Sinn Féin to a hungry crocodile during March's Stormont election campaign it resulted in a huge surge in support for the party at the polls.

Republicans were similarly outraged early in the Westminster campaign when the DUP leader described Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O'Neill as "blonde".

The fallout from the remark appeared to prompt a rethink among the DUP polling strategists, who look to have advised the former first minister to cut back on media appearances.

In the two televised leaders debates on UTV and BBC, Mrs Foster was replaced by Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson, respectively.

The last minute substitution led to a #WheresArlene theme on Twitter, taking its inspiration from the popular 'Where's Wally?' series of children's books.

According to Professor Tonge, Mr Dodds's role as leader of the DUP team at Westminster meant he was likely to play a lead role in the campaign. However, the Merseyside-based academic conceded that in the latter stages of campaigning Mrs Foster was conspicuously absent.

"Arlene hardly appeared at all – Nigel Dodds was the main man, but then it's a Westminster election so you would expect Nigel Dodds, as leader of the DUP team at Westminster, to take a lead role in the campaign," he said.

"But certainly Arlene's remarks about the crocodile etc meant she took a back seat role and she's only reappeared now there's such a great result for the DUP."

He said it was clear that the DUP leader's remarks had sparked a nationalist backlash.

"I don't think Arlene massively misjudged the mood of unionism in March – all she did was misjudge the mood of nationalism and mobilise them," he said.

But Mrs Foster was back in the limelight yesterday as the DUP celebrated a convincing electoral victory which Professor Tonge said had put the party in the "best position in its history".

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