UUP ends anti-Brexit stance and sides with DUP to oppose Sinn Fein
The Ulster Unionist Party has abandoned its position as a Remain party in favour of an unofficial anti-Sinn Fein pact with the DUP.
While the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Greens are campaigning on a strong anti-Brexit ticket, the UUP chief whip said yesterday that it accepts "the will of the British people" and has moved beyond the referendum.
The announcement by Steve Aiken, the party's finance spokesperson and Assembly chief whip, effectively ends the party's identification as an anti-Brexit party.
"We are proudly British. The people have spoken in the referendum.
"We now need to get on with it. We support Theresa May in getting the best deal for Britain [in Brexit negotiations] and our position is to get the best deal for Northern Ireland," he said.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP have called for a special deal that would allow Northern Ireland to remain in the EU.
The SDLP had tried to put together a voting pact that would have included all the pro-European parties, including the UUP, but talks broke down late last month.
Mr Aiken said that the party was more interested in ensuring that Sinn Fein does not win any abstentionist seats in Westminster next month.
"We want to see all 18 Northern Ireland MPs taking their seats," he said.
"There is absolutely no point whatsoever in voting for Sinn Fein because they never take their seats in Westminster, they don't sit on the committees.
"Voting for Sinn Fein is a non-vote. There is absolutely no point to it."
Mr Aiken said Sinn Fein voters would be better off hiring a lobbyist in Westminster because Sinn Fein's abstentionist position meant that it is only an expensive lobby group in the House of Commons.
While Mr Aiken stressed that there is no official pact with the DUP, the two parties are "playing their part" in ensuring that unionist candidates can beat Sinn Fein in almost every constituency in Northern Ireland, he said.
The UUP announced on Monday that it will not run in North Belfast, West Belfast and Foyle so that the DUP can maximise its chances of beating Sinn Fein.
The DUP will not run in Fermanagh and South Tyrone to help the UUP beat Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew.
The two unionist parties are only competing in constituencies where Sinn Fein have little chance of winning or where the SDLP is the dominant nationalist party, such as in South Belfast.
Sinn Fein refuses to take its seats in Westminster, but does claim expenses for its five abstentionist MPs and has offices within the Westminster complex.
With the DUP agreeing not to run in Arlene Foster's home constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the UUP's Tom Elliott has a strong chance of retaining his seat.
He won it by less than 600 votes from Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew in 2015.
The seat, won in 1981 by Bobby Sands, was held by Ms Gildernew from 2001 until Mr Elliott's victory in 2015.
Mr Aiken said he believed that Sinn Fein may be waiting for Gerry Adams to resign as party leader later this year before abandoning abstentionism.
"They abstained from the Dail, then they took their seats in the Dail; they abstained from Northern Ireland's councils, then took their seats; they abstained from Stormont, then took their seats, they abstained from the European Parliament and are now strongly remain," he said. "Why wouldn't Westminster be next?"
Sinn Fein has not yet responded to a request for comment.