Lord Kilclooney: I'd vote DUP if I lived in East Belfast
A former deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists has delivered a major blow to the party before it even announces its candidate for East Belfast after he said he would vote for the DUP if he lived there.
Two UUP men are in the running to become their party's Westminster candidate in the constituency - despite DUP pressure to stand aside.
Alliance's Naomi Long took the seat from DUP leader Peter Robinson at the last general election, and the party is desperate to win it back.
DUP councillor Gavin Robinson was unveiled as his party's candidate during its conference at the weekend. But early next month the UUP will decide whether he goes up against Belfast councillor Chris McGimpsey or businessman Tim Lemon.
Whoever is chosen by the UUP's East Belfast Association now faces a more difficult task after an intervention by Lord Kilclooney, formerly John Taylor.
He said the likelihood of a hung parliament, with no party holding an overall majority after the election, offered a "great opportunity for unionists in Westminster".
"It is essential that a very large team of unionists are elected in Northern Ireland in order to influence the formation of the next UK Government. If I had a vote in East Belfast, I would certainly vote for Gavin Robinson," he said.
"He had a most successful period as Lord Mayor of Belfast in a quite difficult period. He represented all communities without controversy. He proved himself to be a presentable and able politician. He is the kind of representative that Northern Ireland needs in the House of Commons.
"Without any hesitation, I recommend all unionists of all parties, or none, to unite behind Gavin Robinson and ensure quality representation for Northern Ireland in our national parliament."
However, Alliance leader David Ford said he had full confidence that Mrs Long will retain her seat.
"Naomi Long has presented a positive message to the people of East Belfast," he said. "She has been a strong voice for her constituency on issues such as the Kincora allegations, animal welfare, air passenger duty and securing increased transparency of political donations.
"She has continued to put the needs and interests of the people ahead of the party."
A UUP source indicated that the party had come under pressure from the DUP to step aside in East Belfast, but added that the party had been buoyed by a strong performance at this year's council elections. They accused the DUP of being scared of losing again to Mrs Long.