Arlene Foster accuses UUP's Steve Aiken of handing seats to Sinn Fein after ruling out electoral pacts
DUP leader Arlene Foster has accused UUP leader-in-waiting Steve Aiken of being willing to "hand seats to Sinn Fein" by ruling out electoral pacts.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Aiken said "there will be no pacts with the DUP under my leadership".
He accused the party of having "besmirched unionism with its corruption and sleaze".
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The vow could soon be tested with Prime Minister Boris Johnson attempting to get MPs to back a General Election for December 12.
In the past the DUP and UUP have formed electoral pacts in close fought constituencies so as not to split the unionist vote.
In an interview recorded for BBC Sunday Politics Northern Ireland shortly after the DUP's party conference Mrs Foster urged Mr Aiken to reflect on his position.
She directly responded to speculation that the move could lead to DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds losing his seat in North Belfast to Sinn Fein's John Finucane.
Mrs Foster also criticised Mr Aiken for saying that he would move the UUP to an "unambiguously pro-Remain position" on Brexit.
"That means he is rejecting unionism in terms of the nationwide referendum poll," the DUP leader said.
"I also listened to what he had to say in relation to electoral pacts and I think right across unionism people will be despairing at Steve Aiken today.
"The fact that he is prepared to put in jeopardy seats and allow them to go to Sinn Fein, I think he's the one that needs to reflect on what exactly he is trying to do."
Mrs Foster accepted the move could have ramifications for her party.
"It's telling, it's very telling that his first interview says there won't be any electoral pacts, I presume that means in north Belfast where there is a possibility that Sinn Fein will take the seat," she said.
"I presume that means Fermanagh and South Tyrone where if there is not a pact that seat will go back again to Michelle Gildernew.
"Here we have a man claiming to be a unionist leader who thinks it is ok to hand seats away to Sinn Fein, who don't take their seats in Westminster and therefore there is no voice for those constituents in London.
"He is going to pursue a policy that will hand seats to Sinn Fein. I think that's really regrettable, that's something for him to reflect on, I think it's something for wider unionism to reflect on."
Mr Aiken, a former Naval commander who entered politics in 2016, is set to replace Robin Swann as UUP leader next month.
He implied that the UUP were the only party who could defeat Sinn Fein in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
"There is only one candidate who can defeat Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and the DUP know who that candidate is," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
He also declined to advise UUP voters to transfer votes to the DUP in the event of another Assembly election.
"After voting for us, it's up to them to decide what they do next and who is best fit to represent them. We trust our electorate," Mr Aiken added.
Belfast Telegraph Digital