Sylvia Hermon's verdict on DUP bid for her seat: 'Interesting, but I'll win'
Lady Sylvia Hermon has broken her silence over the DUP's bid to oust her in North Down.
Welcoming the challenge, the outgoing MP said the DUP move to run MLA Alex Easton would make the contest "much more interesting".
She said it was a "complete surprise" that the Ulster Unionist Party had withdrawn its candidate in her favour. Many had expected the DUP would do the same.
Lady Hermon, however, said she was not "in the least surprised" that the DUP had announced a candidate - even though her former party has stayed out of the race. She also made clear she would not be returning to the UUP, which she quit at the last election over its then electoral experiment team-up with the Conservatives.
"As an independent, I've enjoyed that status too much to change now," she said.
"The decision to withdraw was entirely a decision for the UUP but their generous endorsement of my candidature was very encouraging."
The independent unionist has already been out putting posters up before the DUP "election machine" gets under way.
"I'm not in the least surprised the DUP has decided to oppose me this time, and so I've been busy putting up posters before its election machine swings into action," she said.
"It certainly makes for a much more interesting campaign in North Down, but I remain confident the best woman will win."
It is understood the DUP decided on the attempt to unseat Lady Hermon, after staying out of the race at the last General Election in 2010, because she would not agree to take their party whip after the poll.
The DUP believes it could prove to be 'kingmakers' in supporting the next national government but has said it would not join a coalition with Conservatives or Labour.
Mr Easton, who has topped Assembly election polls for the party in the area, emphasised the benefits of being part of a team.
"The people of North Down know I have a record of hard work and delivery. Whether in the Assembly or in the council, the DUP representatives work as a team to get the best deal for our constituents. It's now time to extend that team effort to Westminster," he said.
North Down has a long record of independent MPs, stretching back through former UK Unionist Party leader Robert McCartney to Jim Kilfedder who was the constituency's MP from 1970 until his death in 1995.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, who stood down his party's candidate Carl McClean, a North Down councillor, said: "(Lady Hermon) is not only a suitable choice for Ulster Unionists, she is still an Ulster Unionist in spirit, and on that basis it makes no sense to stand a candidate against her."
Lady Hermon revealed Mr Nesbitt broke the news of the decision to her in a courtesy phone call.
"I must admit... it took me by complete surprise, but Carl is a fine young man with a real passion for politics who has a bright future ahead of him."
Mr McClean had said earlier: "It is not a surprise at all that the DUP is fighting this seat and what we did was independent of whatever the DUP intends. The only surprise is that the DUP has left it quite late before confirming that Mr Easton is going to run."