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Nesbitt out on limb as straw poll of own people hints plan to give transfer to SDLP is not a vote winner

Leader’s intention to offer nationalist his second preference playing badly in UUP

By Suzanne Breen

As the Ulster Unionists today launch their election manifesto, Mike Nesbitt appears increasingly isolated in his own party over the issue of transferring to the SDLP.

No other UUP politician has so far publicly supported their leader's position by saying that they will give a second or third preference to Colum Eastwood's party.

Several UUP candidates across Northern Ireland yesterday said they were not recommending that their voters transfer to the SDLP.

Mr Nesbitt, who lives in East Belfast, said that after voting for UUP candidate Andy Allen, he would be giving his second preference to the SDLP.

However, UUP Assembly candidate Danny Kennedy advised his voters in Newry and Armagh to transfer to the DUP, and other candidates yesterday joined his appeal to support fellow unionists.

An Ulster Unionist spokesman last night insisted that Mr Nesbitt had simply been expressing his personal opinion about how he would vote in East Belfast.

He said that the UUP leader felt it was "very understandable" that candidates elsewhere took a different position in their constituencies.

"Mike Nesbitt is perfectly comfortable with people such as Danny Kennedy in Newry and Armagh, Harold McKee in South Down, and other candidates expressing the view that they would recommend people transfer to other unionist parties.

"What Mike is focused on is a partnership of the willing (at Stormont) after the election, not a voting pact ahead of it."

In Fermanagh and South Tyrone Rosemary Barton, who is battling to save her Assembly seat, tweeted: "It's recommended that after Barton 1, you give your further vote preferences to other pro union candidates in Fermanagh and South Tyrone."

South Down candidate Mr McKee posted on Facebook: "I am advising my supporters to transfer to other pro-union candidates. This is vital in order to protect the two existing unionist seats in the constituency.

"Transferring between pro-unionist candidates in the past has ensured strong unionist representation in South Down. Not voting or not transferring will result in the fifth seat in South Down going to Sinn Fein." In Upper Bann, where the UUP is fighting to hold onto its two Assembly seats, candidate Doug Beattie said that he wouldn't be recommending that the party's supporters gave their third preference to the SDLP's Dolores Kelly. "In my own area, as far as I am concerned, I have people who represent the community better than the SDLP and I will be transferring my vote to them," he said.

"There are still two-and-a-half weeks to go but I would not be giving my second preference to the SDLP at the moment. When I go out to canvass I do so to promote the Ulster Unionist Party. It is up to other parties to promote themselves."

However, Mr Beattie refused to criticise his party leader. "Mike Nesbitt didn't give advice. He said how he'd use his vote.

"I guess all areas are different. In some, a vote for the SDLP will take a seat off Sinn Fein. Strategic thinking needed," he tweeted.

The UUP candidate in South Belfast, Michael Henderson, declined to specifically say whether his supporters should transfer to other pro-union candidates or to the SDLP.

The constituency's two outgoing DUP MLAs, Emma Little Pengelly and Christopher Stalford, are both battling to retain their seats.

Mr Henderson told the Belfast Telegraph: "I'm asking that people give their first preference to myself as the Ulster Unionist candidate. After that, they should vote for anyone whom they think will make Northern Ireland a better place.

"It's up to people themselves, not politicians, to decide whom they wish to transfer their vote to."

East Belfast candidate Mr Allen said that Mr Nesbitt was fully entitled to take the stance that he did. "It's his vote, therefore his choice. I endorse the right of an individual to vote for the candidate of their choice. Democracy," he tweeted.

Meanwhile, Seamas de Faoite - the SDLP candidate in East Belfast who is getting Mr Nesbitt's second preference - told the Belfast Telegraph: "This election is about whether or not we want a new government. The SDLP is asking people to vote for change. It suits the two big parties if voters remain in their entrenched positions."

When asked if he would transfer to the UUP in South Belfast, where he lives, Mr de Faoite said: "My first and second preferences will go to the two SDLP candidates.

"After that, there are a number of candidates from the Greens, Alliance and the UUP whom I will be considering. I haven't made my mind up yet."

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