Belfast Telegraph

Upper Bann set to be unionist grudge match after UUP turn down DUP's trade-off deal

By Liam Clarke

The DUP offered to pull out of South Belfast in return for the Ulster Unionists withdrawing Jo-Anne Dobson from the battle for Upper Bann, in negotiations over an electoral pact.

The Belfast Telegraph understands that the DUP candidate Jonathan Bell could have stood aside in South Belfast to give the UUP a clear run. The trade-off in the failed deal was to be Ms Dobson's removal from the race against David Simpson in Upper Bann.

Upper Bann is a real inter-unionist grudge match. The seat was held by David Trimble who lost it in an extremely bitter contest which spelled the end of his term as UUP leader.

Mr Trimble was even attacked leaving the count. The party are keen to avenge this setback just as the DUP wanted to preserve incumbent Mr Simpson. Both parties declined to comment on what were private talks which agreed a pact in four constituencies which, in the end, did not include South Belfast and Upper Bann.

One UUP source claimed that it was not clear if Jonathan Bell would actually stand down once he was announced, though other sources in both parties say it was clear enough.

In South Belfast the prize for unionism is to unseat Dr Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP leader, but no agreement could be reached. Dr McDonnell faces a challenge from Mairtin O Muilleoir of Sinn Fein on the nationalist side but still looks likely to keep his Westminster seat.

Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, referred to his hopes for a pact without giving the details at the weekend. He claimed the UUP would not engage seriously on South Belfast in a speech to his party's policy conference and said: "Ideally, I would have liked an even wider deal".

He went on: "I would have liked Upper Bann and South Belfast to be included. But let's be clear, the DUP is the largest unionist party in both those constituencies. We are leading in the polls in both constituencies and in each of them our main challenge comes from outside unionism.

"In Upper Bann, there is a fine margin between the DUP and Sinn Fein with the UUP trailing behind in third place - but still capable of endangering the seat.

"Let's be clear this is a two-horse race between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

"If the seat is to be held for unionism, it will only be David Simpson who can do it. While Upper Bann remains a strongly unionist constituency, the danger to unionism is a split unionist vote allowing Sinn Fein through the back door."

The vital statistics of the constituency show a close bunching of the three biggest parties. The 2011 Assembly elections showed Sinn Fein on 27.2%, 21 votes ahead of the DUP's 27.1% and the UUP on 24.6%.

Although Westminster and Assembly elections aren't strictly comparable, this shows that, as the DUP fear, it cannot be considered a safe seat.

Background

The Ulster Unionists and DUP have formed an electoral pact in four Westminster seats where they think that a single unionist has a better chance. Constituencies covered are North Belfast (where the DUP's Nigel Dodds is the sitting MP), Newry and Mourne (Danny Kennedy of the UUP is backed by both parties), East Belfast (DUP man Gavin Robinson has the support of both) and Fermanagh and South Tyrone (where Tom Elliott of the UUP is standing).

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