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DUP seeks a clear run to unseat SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell in South Belfast

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster has indicated that the Ulster Unionists should stand aside to give her party a clear run for the South Belfast seat in the Westminster election.

In an article in today's Belfast Telegraph, the DUP leader sets out her party's stall for several key constituencies ahead of the June 8 poll.

Writing ahead of her meeting today to discuss a pact with newly elected UUP leader Robin Swann, Mrs Foster stresses her commitment to both unionist parties working together to return the maximum number of MPs.

She reveals that the DUP is pulling out of Fermanagh and South Tyrone to give the UUP's Tom Elliott a clear run at holding onto his seat in the face of a strong challenge from Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew.

Read more: Arlene Foster: We won't go up against the UUP in Fermanagh... but there can be no argument that we lead unionism in South Belfast

However, she indicates her party won't withdraw from South Belfast, and believes it is far better placed than the Ulster Unionists to take the seat from the SDLP's Dr Alasdair McDonnell.

The Belfast Telegraph revealed on Saturday that former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt could make a pitch for the South Belfast seat, with his party believing he would be "a very credible candidate" with broad appeal in the liberal constituency.

Indicating that she rejects the case that Mr Nesbitt would be the best unionist candidate for the constituency, Mrs Foster said: "There can be no argument that the DUP is not only the lead unionist party, but the lead party, in South Belfast.

"Sadly, in 2015, the UUP did not accept that reality but, given the results in 2016 and 2017, it cannot now be disputed."

In March's Assembly election, the DUP polled 21% of the vote in South Belfast, with the SDLP on 19% and the UUP on just 9%.

The DUP leader indicated that she expected the UUP to acknowledge the DUP's electoral dominance in East Belfast by pulling out to give Gavin Robinson MP a clear run against Alliance's Naomi Long.

As she prepares to meet Mr Swann today, Mrs Foster was leaving him in no doubt that, as the considerably bigger party, the DUP should be the lead partner in any electoral pact.

"The DUP is now overwhelmingly the largest unionist party in every one of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland. In Belfast alone we have five MLAs to the UUP's one.

"We are the only unionist representatives elected to the Assembly in both North and South Belfast. In East Belfast at the last Assembly election we had almost three times as many votes as the next largest unionist party," she said.

In her article, the DUP leader makes no mention of her party withdrawing from South Antrim where the UUP's Danny Kinahan snatched the seat from the Rev William McCrea in 2015.

Mr Kinahan won by 900 votes, but the DUP came out well ahead of the UUP in the constituency in last month's Stormont poll - 34% to 21%.

Mrs Foster welcomed the UUP's announcement at the weekend that it wasn't fielding candidates in North Belfast, West Belfast and Foyle.

Stressing her party's claim on East Belfast as well, she said: "It is beyond doubt that Nigel Dodds and Gavin Robinson are the standard-bearers for unionism in North and East Belfast respectively."

But Mrs Foster also insisted that she was committed to unionist unity.

"When I was elected as leader of the DUP, I said I wanted to work to bring about wider unionist co-operation.

"I believed it was the right approach then and I still believe it is the right approach today," she added.

In reference to the SDLP and Sinn Fein, Mrs Foster said that while some parties "continue to seek to refight" the Brexit referendum result, the election offered "an opportunity to vote for the Union".

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