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DUP 'Project Fear' over Sinn Fein topping poll is costing UUP votes, claims party veteran

By Suzanne Breen

A veteran Ulster Unionist councillor has claimed that voters are abandoning his party over fears that Sinn Fein could win the greatest number of seats at Stormont.

Belfast City councillor Jim Rodgers last night told the Belfast Telegraph that people planning to vote UUP had now switched to the DUP as they were scared that Sinn Fein would emerge with the most MLAs.

Mr Rodgers said: "This is a vitally important election for the UUP and, over the last week, things seem to have changed a lot.

"I've been out and about and many people, who had indicated earlier that they were going to vote for us, are now telling me that they're supporting the DUP, or sticking with the DUP, because they don't want to see Sinn Fein become the largest party."

In an apparent swipe at his leader Mike Nesbitt, who has been deeply critical of the DUP, Mr Rodgers said: "It's easy to be critical of other parties, but you have to offer something different.

"We can all criticise, but people get a bit fed up of hearing politicians tear into other parties. They want you to tell them what you can offer."

However, councillor Alex Baird - on whose Facebook page the debate about the UUP's likely performance started - said there was no evidence in his constituency that the party's voters were switching to the DUP, and that anger over 'cash for ash' was considerable.

UUP Fermanagh and Omagh District councillor Mr Baird said: "Canvassing for our candidate, Rosemary Barton, I've seen nothing to suggest that our voters are jumping ship to the DUP.

"Far from finding that UUP voters are wobbling and leaving us, I've come across considerable anger at the doors over the DUP's RHI shenanigans."

Mr Baird insisted that Mr Nesbitt's decision to give his second preference vote to the SDLP wasn't a major issue on the ground.

"It's been raised once or twice, no more than that," he said.

"Mike's personal preference was played out of all proportion in the media. It's come and gone like yesterday's fish and chip papers."

On Mr Baird's Facebook page, Mr Rodgers said: "We should be worried about our own party. Feedback from the electorate in many areas is not good.

"I have been at a number of events and the message is loud and clear. We will be voting DUP because if we don't Sinn Fein will have the most seats.

"Next Friday and Saturday will be vitally important days for the UUP. If the results go against us there, there will almost certainly be serious repercussions."

Fellow Belfast UUP councillor Chris McGimpsey joined in the discussion and warned that if his party couldn't make gains over the DUP in the midst of the 'cash for ash' scandal, there must be "serious changes".

Mr McGimpsey continued: "With so much ammunition in our war chest, if we cannot gain ground at this election, then there needs to be serious questions posed.

"We have a lot riding on the results. It could be another decade before we have such an opportunity again."

Responding to the comments made by Rodgers and McGimpsey, the UUP last night rounded on the DUP for using scare tactics in a highly unpredictable election.

"The DUP are running Project Fear because their record in government with Sinn Fein is appalling," a spokesman said.

"Despite their chest-beating last May, the DUP jumped straight back in with Sinn Fein. DUP pledges before an election disappear like snow off a ditch afterwards."

The UUP spokesman said it was "understandable for people to be nervous in advance of an election".

But he insisted that Thursday offered "an opportunity for change and a move away from the scandals, disappointments and whiff of corruption which is endemic around a Sinn Fein/DUP government".

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