DUP and UUP in real needle match: Election heats up at last as parties clash over the transfer of votes in May
The DUP has gone on the offensive after an Ulster Unionist candidate said he would rather stick knitting needles in his eyes than vote for Arlene Foster's party.
Upper Bann candidate Doug Beattie, who is in the race for the UUP alongside Jo-Anne Dobson, also described last year's pact between the two parties "a necessary evil".
The gloves appeared to finally be coming off between the two main unionist rivals after a lacklustre election campaign - although both also know that the bickering can work against them electorally.
Former Royal Irish Regiment captain and Military Cross winner Mr Beattie was responding on Twitter to one of the DUP's hopefuls in the constituency, Carla Lockhart.
He said: "I'd rather stick knitting needles in my eyes than vote DUP - I hope that is clarity enough."
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds reacted, calling on Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt to clarify his party's advice to unionist voters.
"Does he believe the language used by Doug Beattie is appropriate and is it representative of the wider UUP position and would Mr Nesbitt be happy to see seats in constituencies be won by a nationalist or republican candidate rather than the DUP?" the North Belfast MP, who is not standing for the Assembly, asked.
Picking up the UUP's 'Make It Work' slogan, Mr Dodds went on: "Is 'sticking knitting needles in your eyes rather than voting DUP' an example of how Mike Nesbitt and the UUP intends to 'Make It Work'?
"Left unchecked, this type of immature and vindictive language is likely to damage the UUP in particular."
Mr Dodds confirmed his party in proportional representation elections always seeks support for its own candidates first, but also sought to maximise the overall number of unionist MLAs.
"That is why the DUP position is to ask those who will vote DUP in the Assembly poll on May 5 to then give other lower preference votes to other pro-Union candidates in the order of choice of the individual voter," he said.
"The unionist community have made it clear time after time that they wish to see unionism working and co-operating together to strengthen the unionist position in Northern Ireland.
"Thankfully, many thousands of people across Northern Ireland are already acutely aware of the dangers of shredding the unionist vote and know that the only way to ensure Sinn Fein does not become the largest party and Martin McGuinness is not elected First Minister is by rallying behind the only unionist party that can win - the DUP."
An Ulster Unionist Party statement last night hit back: "Nigel Dodds knows perfectly well that it was Mike Nesbitt and the UUP that first proposed the co-operation that led to the successes for unionism in last year's Westminster elections so we will take no lectures from the DUP deputy leader on co-operation.
"Some members of the DUP need to grow a thicker skin. There's always hurly-burly in politics, especially at election time and for the DUP to now try and lecture the Ulster Unionist Party on co-operating with other unionists is a bit rich to say the least.
"Everybody knows that there are DUP voters who will never vote Ulster Unionist and vice-versa. Nigel Dodds' real motivation is clearly laid out in the last paragraph of his statement."