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UUP's Nesbitt pulls out of South Belfast for a shot at Strangford

UUP announcing candidates for Westminster election

By Suzanne Breen

The Ulster Unionist party is announcing most of its Westminster election candidates today - except for South Belfast, which remains shrouded in mystery.

Neither of the two main unionist parties are revealing who their candidate will be for the city's most liberal constituency.

Sitting SDLP MP Dr Alasdair McDonnell is vulnerable to a unionist challenger.

Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt last night ruled himself out of the race, despite his party thinking he would the ideal candidate.

Mr Nesbitt told this paper that while the UUP had asked him to run in the constituency, he had decided to stand in Strangford, where is a sitting MLA.

He explained that while he had considered South Belfast, he would never have agreed to be a unionist unity candidate.

The DUP yesterday unveiled its candidates in 11 constituencies, but omitted South Belfast. Senior sources said the choice would be announced next week.

Party insiders confirmed that former MLAs Emma Little Pengelly and Brenda Hale, along with sitting South Belfast MLA Christopher Stalford, are among those under consideration.

It comes as prospects of a unionist pact fade fast, with the DUP yesterday announcing that MLA Paul Girvan would challenge UUP MP Danny Kinahan for his South Antrim seat.

Last night, Mr Nesbitt said he had been honoured to be approached by his party to run in South Belfast.

"I was most pleased to have been asked and I considered running as a UUP candidate, but I was never going to be a unionist unity candidate," he explained.

"I have been extremely outspoken on the RHI scandal and extremely critical of the DUP. The idea of me being a joint candidate would go against everything that I have stood for and everything I have tried to do."

In the 2015 Westminster election, Mr Nesbitt agreed a deal with Peter Robinson that saw his party stand aside in East and North Belfast, while the DUP withdrew in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Newry and Armagh. But the former UUP leader yesterday denied that his thinking now conflicted with his previous position.

"The circumstances are totally different," he said. "The aim of the agreement was to get Tom Elliott returned to Westminster and to unseat an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP in Michelle Gildernew so that the people of Fermanagh, and South Tyrone had representation in Parliament."

He also stressed that his "loyalties are to Strangford". "I first stood in that constituency in the 2010 Westminster election," Mr Nesbitt said. "I've been elected there as an MLA three times."

The UUP MLA additionally admitted that sitting DUP MP Jim Shannon, who has a 10,000 majority, would be "very difficult" to beat, but added: "People in Strangford want a UUP candidate. I'm happy to be that man."

The DUP yesterday revealed an all-male line up in 11 constituencies. Its seven sitting MPs - Nigel Dodds, Gavin Robinson, Sammy Wilson, Ian Paisley jnr, Gregory Campbell, Jeffrey Donaldson, and David Simpson - are all running again.

MLA Gary Middleton is standing in Foyle and Belfast city councillor Frank McCoubrey is contesting West Belfast. It will announce its candidates in other constituencies soon.

Party leader Arlene Foster said: "This is an opportunity for people to elect DUP candidates who will work for Northern Ireland. Voters will be able to show their support for the Union.

"I will be taking the opportunity to outline the benefits of our UK. We support getting the Assembly and the Executive back functioning and local ministers working on health, education and the issues that matter to people's lives here.

"This election can provide the basis for strengthening the Union and ensuring Northern Ireland sends people to Westminster who will deliver for them."

Mrs Foster last week met with new UUP leader Robin Swann to discuss a pact, but there was no agreement on key constituencies.

The UUP unilaterally pulled out of North Belfast to give the DUP's Nigel Dodds a clear run, and the DUP reciprocated for Tom Elliott in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

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