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SDLP rejects Sinn Fein call to stand aside for election

The SDLP has rejected a Sinn Fein call to stand aside in two constituencies in Northern Ireland, insisting it has no intention of facilitating abstentionist MPs.

Party leader Colum Eastwood dismissed the republican party's proposal in emphatic terms.

"There's no point running for election if you aren't going to take your seat."

Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill earlier urged the SDLP to stand aside in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and North Belfast to maximise the "anti-Brexit vote".

But she did not offered a reciprocal gesture.

In both constituencies, Sinn Fein is attempting to displace a sitting unionist - DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds in Belfast and former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott in Fermanagh.

While Mrs O'Neill called on Mr Eastwood to withdraw from those two races, she made clear Sinn Fein would not do the same in constituencies where the SDLP is potentially better placed to win, insisting her party would stand in all 18 constituencies.

Mr Eastwood rejected the idea outright.

"The SDLP has no intention of facilitating abstentionist MPs who won't take the fight to the Tories on Brexit," he said.

Last month, the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Green Party held talks on a potential anti-Brexit electoral alliance - but those discussions faltered when the Greens withdrew.

At the time, Mr Eastwood insisted he would not contemplate a two-party deal with Sinn Fein, insisting that any link-up would have to be cross-community in make-up.

"No one has worked harder to form a broad anti-Brexit Alliance than us," he said in response to the latest Sinn Fein proposal.

"We offered to support independent, non-party aligned candidates in constituencies where the people voted to remain but the MP votes for Brexit. Other parties have rejected those proposals.

"If people want to maximise the pro-Europe vote, they can vote for the party with the longest and the strongest pro-Europe record. The SDLP will be standing candidates in all 18 constituencies and every one of our MPs will join with SNP MPs to defend the will of the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland who voted to remain."

Urging Mr Eastwood to do "the right thing", Mrs O'Neill said: "If the SDLP believe in that anti-Brexit position that they consistently said in their public narrative then they should do the right thing."

After making the announcement at the party's offices in west Belfast, Mrs O'Neill faced questions on what the SDLP would gain from such an offer.

She responded: "They get the maximum number of MPs returned which are going to be anti-Brexit, which is their position."

Mrs O'Neill denied she was offering a "sectarian pact".

"This is not about pacts and it is certainly not about a sectarian pact, it's about maximising the number of MPs who are returned who have adopted the position that is anti-Brexit, which is clearly what the wishes of the people of the north here voted last June," she said.

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