David Cameron was today accused of dragging Northern Ireland back to the dark old days by “promoting” sectarian politics after it emerged a joint unionist candidate had been agreed for the Fermanagh-South Tyrone seat.
SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie made the accusation following Rodney Connor’s announcement that he would contest the seat in the General Election.
Mr Connor, a former chief executive of Fermanagh District Council, will stand as an independent while the DUP and Ulster Unionists have both agreed to step out of the running.
Meanwhile, sitting Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew, who has been the incumbent since 2001, accused the unionist parties of pursuing a sectarian agenda.
“I have been the MP for all the people in Fermanagh and South Tyrone,” she said.
“Rodney Connor wants to return to the days when nationalists in this area were unrepresented. We need to unite to ensure that this does not happen.
“The unionist parties have cobbled together a regressive deal based on a negative agenda. It is about base sectarianism, and the old agenda of division and inequality.
The move regarding Mr Connor’s election entry comes after months of protracted negotiations between the parties.
But this morning Ms Ritchie described the decision as a “gross insult” to the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Mr Connor has said that while he was running as an independent he was prepared to accept the Conservative whip.
Ms Ritchie said this pledge was no more than “a fig leaf to cover their sectarian tracks” and accused the Tories of taking sides in the old orange and green politics.
“David Cameron is guilty of propping up sectarian politics and reinforcing sectarian division,” she said. “It serves as proof that his pledge that his party’s foray into political life here was non-sectarian is a lie.”
The decision by the DUP and UUP to agree on a joint-unionist candidate could also further complicate the Ulster Unionists’ alliance with the Conservative Party.
When the political marriage was formed, Mr Cameron made it clear that one of their joint candidates should run in each of Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies.
But today’s announcement puts an end to that pledge.
Mr Connor said he would accept the Tory whip at Westminster but insisted in regard to local matters he would vote in the best interest of the region.
“I want to be a voice for the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone at Westminster,” he said. “Through my work, over the years, I believe that I have already demonstrated a proven track record of delivering in the constituency for people from right across the community. I know what Fermanagh and South Tyrone needs and I believe that I am well equipped to help deliver it.
“Now more than ever it is essential that Fermanagh and South Tyrone has representation at Westminster. At a time of financial difficulties and recession it is vital that a constituency so far geographically removed from Westminster has its voice and influence maximised in the House of Commons.”
Ulster Unionist MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Tom Elliott, said he was withdrawing his candidacy because he believed Mr Connor was the ideal choice.
Economy Minister Arlene Foster, who was due to run for the DUP, has also thrown her support behind the move.
“This follows many weeks of discussions and negotiations and represents a good and potentially historic day for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and for unionism,” she said.
While the DUP and UUP reached agreement in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, talks to find a single candidate in another marginal nationalist seat — South Belfast — came to nothing.