Emma Little-Pengelly to run for DUP in South Belfast as unionists aim for co-operation
Emma Little-Pengelly has been declared as the DUP candidate to challenge SDLP MP Dr Alasdair McDonnell for his South Belfast seat in next month's Westminster election.
The move comes as Arlene Foster and Robin Swann issued a joint statement saying that while they had been unable to reach a pact for key seats, they would hold further talks about "better unionist co-operation" after the election.
DUP press conference to announce General Election candidates.Posted by Belfast Telegraph on Monday, May 8, 2017
In a show of unity, the DUP and UUP leaders urged their voters to turn out in force to maximise the unionist vote across Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies.
They also indicated that, unlike March's Assembly poll, their parties would adopt a far less combative approach to each other during this election campaign.
Although no pact has been possible, the UUP hasn't revealed whether it will stand in South Belfast and East Belfast, or if it will pull out of those constituencies to give the DUP a clear run. An announce is expected imminently.
At the DUP's East Belfast campaign launch this morning, Mrs Foster is expected to say: "The Assembly election results on March 2 served as a wake-up call for the unionist community.
"The Westminster election gives unionism the chance to get back on the right track. Now is the time to make the detailed and undeniable case for the Union.
"To restate why the Union is so precious to us all and why it matters to the quality of life and prosperity of everyone in Northern Ireland".
Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen has been on the ground delivering his constituency leaflet in East Belfast. But sources said that the party leadership had debated whether to stand or to withdraw to give DUP MP Gavin Robinson a clear run in what will be a tough battle to retain his seat against Alliance leader Naomi Long.
The DUP Leader Arlene Foster declared Emma Little-Pengelly as South Belfast candidate at the election campaign launch.
Ms Little-Pengelly, a former DUP special adviser at Stormont, narrowly lost her Assembly seat in the constituency in March's election. Other names mentioned for the nomination had been local sitting MLA, Christopher Stalford, and former Lagan Valley MLA, Brenda Hale, who lost her seat in March.
The UUP still hasn't picked a South Belfast candidate. Several local councillors, including Chris McGimpsey, have thrown their hats into the ring. But insiders revealed that the party leadership had discussed whether or not to contest the constituency where its vote has fallen dramatically. If the UUP pulls out, Ms Little-Pengelly would become the clear favourite to beat Dr McDonnell.
It is understood that former UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy had expressed an interest in running in South Belfast as a unionist unity candidate.
But with the DUP refusing to pull out of the race, he decided not to contest the seat. Mr Kennedy lost his Newry and Armagh Assembly seat in March's election.
Sources said that he won't be running for that constituency this time with the UUP Westminster candidate likely to be local councillor Sam Nicholson.
In their joint statement, Mrs Foster and new UUP leader Robin Swann said that June's election was hugely important.
"As leaders of unionism, we want first and foremost to encourage all those in Northern Ireland who value the Union to vote," they said.
"Regardless of whether people identify with a particular party affiliation or with none, we urge all those who believe in the Union and its benefits to support pro-Union candidates.
"Both our parties want to see the strongest possible vote for pro-Union candidates standing in all of the 18 constituencies across Northern Ireland. We are committed to work co-operatively to do all we can to maximise voter turnout."
While admitting that their talks to reach a pact in key constituencies had failed, both leaders "resolved to continue discussions in the interests of better unionist co-operation beyond this election period".
The UUP has already unilaterally stood aside for the DUP in North Belfast and the latter has reciprocated in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Mrs Foster urged her supporters to rally behind sitting UUP MP Tom Elliott in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and Mr Swann urged his party's voters to back DUP MP Nigel Dodds to retain his North Belfast seat.
Both leaders indicated that they wouldn't wage an aggressive campaign against each other.
"We are collectively determined to make the case for the Union and to work together in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. It is in that spirit that we will conduct our respective election campaigns," they stated.