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General Election: Vote pacts loom in Northern Ireland

Unionists weigh up deals for marginal seats after PM calls snap poll

By Noel McAdam and Cate McCurry

Within minutes of Prime Minister Theresa May calling a snap general election, the talk within Northern Ireland was of electoral pacts.

Deals were done in four constituencies in 2015 which resulted in the UUP's Tom Elliott becoming the first unionist MP in Fermanagh-South Tyrone in almost 20 years and the DUP's Gavin Robinson winning back East Belfast for his party from Alliance's Naomi Long.

Flashback to March Stormont election results 2017  - select a constituency - North Antrim - East Antrim - South Antrim - North Belfast - East Belfast - South Belfast - West Belfast - Strangford - South Down - Lagan Valley - Upper Bann - Newry and Armagh - Fermanagh & South Tyrone - West Tyrone - Mid Ulster - East Londonderry - Foyle - North Down

While formal talks have not started between unionist parties for this poll, parties that lost out are gearing up for battle. Former Fermanagh-South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew tweeted after the announcement that Sinn Fein activists were "chomping at the bit", adding: "We'll be fighting for the return of this historic seat."

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Alliance councillor Emmet McDonough Brown signalled his party's ambitions in East Belfast, tweeting: "Right @allianceparty let's get our campaign on! South Belfast and East Belfast look interesting."

Last night Mr Elliott and Mr Robinson both told the Belfast Telegraph that they were not aware of formal pact talks between their parties at this stage.

New UUP leader Robin Swann has spoken in favour of greater unionist co-operation, and a DUP source said: "We've also said for a good while that we want to see unionism working together and the election would be an opportunity for that."

Mr Swann said he wanted to see 18 Northern Ireland MPs sitting at Westminster, a pointed comment aimed at the abstentionist Sinn Fein.

Alliance leader Mrs Long said her party only lost East Belfast because of a pact.

"Only weeks ago, Robin Swann was elected as UUP leader and made a pledge his party would be different to the DUP. Now he faces the challenge to prove that and not slide back into an undemocratic agreement with other parties," she added.

The DUP stepped aside in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and Newry and Armagh, while the UUP stayed out of the East Belfast and North Belfast contests.

Sinn Fein, meanwhile, could also be poised to repeat its offer of an election pact with the SDLP, which firmly rejected such overtures in 2015.

Former MLA Daithi McKay said the most obvious seats for a nationalist deal were South Belfast, Fermanagh-South Tyrone and North Belfast. But added he felt it was unlikely.

"It's been mooted many times in the past and no doubt it will be again, but on this occasion, given the fact that the SDLP have mixed views within their party, they certainly won't be looking at it. Sinn Fein would like to see a pact to secure Fermanagh-South Tyrone, and they may indeed make that proposal," he told the Belfast Telegraph, adding he believed Sinn Fein stood a chance of gaining three seats - Fermanagh-South Tyrone, South Down and Foyle, and that the DUP could also win South Antrim and South Belfast.

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