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UUP leader Nesbitt faces party challenge as Kennedy tells his voters that any transfers should be to DUP

By Suzanne Breen

A senior Ulster Unionist politician has urged voters in his constituency to transfer to the DUP in a significant clash with party leader, Mike Nesbitt.

Newry and Armagh UUP candidate, Danny Kennedy, last night advised his supporters to give their second preference to Arlene Foster's party.

Earlier, Mr Nesbitt stunned many traditional UUP supporters when he revealed that he would be transferring to the SDLP ahead of other unionist candidates.

Mr Kennedy, a former UUP deputy leader, posted on Facebook: "I confirm that I will be advising my supporters to give their second preference vote to the only other unionist candidate standing in the constituency.

"I believe it is important to protect the two pro-Union seats in this constituency."

The only other unionist in Newry and Armagh is outgoing DUP MLA, William Irwin.

When contacted by the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Kennedy declined to comment. DUP leader, Arlene Foster rounded on Mr Nesbitt, accusing him of promoting politicians who wanted Irish unity.

Mr Nesbitt stressed that he was speaking personally and was not urging UUP supporters elsewhere to adopt his approach and transfer to the SDLP.

The UUP leader, who is a candidate in Strangford but who lives in East Belfast, said he hoped that voters would view the election as a referendum on 'cash for ash'. Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, he states: "This debacle is not an 'orange' or 'green' issue. It's about incompetence, arrogance, cronyism and the strong whiff of corruption.

"These are not my values, or unionism's - or nationalism's. That is why I want people to vote for change. If I took the DUP's advice in my area, I would be giving a preference to Robin Newton, the outgoing Speaker who lost the confidence of every party bar his own - and I think many of them may have privately lost faith. I can work with Colum Eastwood and he can work with me, not because the law says we have to but because we both know it is the only positive way forward. My unionism is enhanced, not diminished, by embracing diversity."

Mr Nesbitt continued: "Vote for the candidates you believe will do the right thing by your community, their constituency and this country. As Arlene Foster told UTV recently, 'judge individuals as politicians'." In contrast to Mr Nesbitt's approach, the UUP's North Belfast candidate, Robert Foster, said he would be voting for the PUP's Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston over the SDLP's Nichola Mallon.

Posting on Facebook, Mr Foster stressed that he was committed to the Union. "In response to a number of questions I have received from voters in north Belfast I wish to make the following clear. I have already made public my intention on giving Julie-Anne Corr Johnston my second preference vote," he said.

Meanwhile, Colum Eastwood said he would give a preference to Mr Nesbitt's party. "I will absolutely transfer to an Ulster Unionist candidate. "But, I'm pretty sure we're going to get two SDLP candidates in Foyle and the number three I don't think will come into it. But that's just my personal situation," he said.

He also stressed that while the SDLP's political objective is a united Ireland, the party could work well with the UUP.

The DUP said that the logic of Mr Nesbitt's position would mean fewer unionists in the Assembly. Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, Mrs Foster said: "When Mike Nesbitt says that he will transfer his vote to the SDLP ahead of any other unionist candidate that can mean only one thing: that he would like to see an SDLP candidate elected ahead of other pro-union candidates.

"The logical outworking of his position is that the UUP leader is personally supportive of voting in a way that helps to elect nationalists, who will take their election as an endorsement of support for their united Ireland position and who are already on record as wanting to see Northern Ireland jointly governed in the interim.

"Following that logic could mean fewer Unionists in the Assembly. Is this now the settled UUP position heading into the final two weeks of the campaign?"

Mrs Foster said that the choice at the election was a simple one "between a strong DUP in Stormont, standing up for Northern Ireland, with a plan to protect jobs and grow the economy and the experience to get the best deal in Brexit negotiations, or a Sinn Fein led government where Gerry Adams will call the shots."

TUV leader Jim Allister said that Mr Nesbitt was "losing his way" and predicted that UUP voters would now turn to his party as an alternative.

Mr Allister said: "Mike Nesbitt got it badly wrong on Brexit - something which many former UUP voters have raised with me on the doors - and now being, at best, equivocal on voting transfers within the unionist family.

"Giving preferences to nationalists before unionists should not be the business of the leader of a party committed to maintaining the Union.

"Happily, traditional unionists who hitherto have voted UUP have an emphatic alternative in TUV, which knows where it stands on all these issues."

Additional reporting by Lisa Smyth

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