Belfast Telegraph

Unionist pact is off the table as DUP's Foster and UUP's Swann fail to strike a deal

Foster and Swann are unable to find any common ground on key constituencies

By Suzanne Breen

Prospects for a series of electoral pacts between the DUP and the UUP now look increasingly unlikely, unionist sources have said.

In a surprising development, little or no agreement emerged over key constituencies at yesterday's meeting between DUP leader Arlene Foster and new Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann.

The DUP now seems set to contest South Belfast and South Antrim with the Ulster Unionists standing candidates in East Belfast and Upper Bann, sources said.

The lack of progress will bolster the chances of the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell holding onto his South Belfast seat.

South Antrim DUP MLA Paul Girvan is tipped to run against UUP MP Danny Kinahan, although the name of Mr Girvan's Assembly colleague, Pam Cameron, is also being floated.

The UUP has been considering parachuting its former Newry and Armagh MLA, Danny Kennedy, in to contest Upper Bann. However, the DUP is intent on running sitting MP, David Simpson, and is confident he can hold his seat.

In the 2015 Westminster election, the two unionist parties reached a deal in four constituencies. The DUP pulled out of Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Newry and Armagh, and the UUP stepped aside in East and North Belfast.

However, unless further progress is made, there will only be two constituencies this time - Fermanagh and South Tyrone and North Belfast - where there is a unionist unity candidate.

The meeting between Mrs Foster and Mr Swann lasted less than an hour. Afterwards, the DUP leader tweeted: "Met UUP Leader Robin Swann earlier. We recognised the value of each other's unilateral decisions in Fermanagh and South Tyrone & North Belfast."

Mr Swann made no statement after the meeting. When contacted last night, spokesmen for neither party would be drawn on yesterday's discussions.

Writing in Monday's Belfast Telegraph, Mrs Foster had said that as the largest party in South Belfast, the DUP was intent on contesting the constituency.

Ulster Unionist sources had said that former party leader, Mike Nesbitt, was considering running for the seat. However, it is most unlikely that the DUP will pull out for any UUP candidate, sources said.

Possible DUP candidates for the Westminster race in South Belfast include Assemblyman Christopher Stalford, and former MLA Emma Little Pengelly, who narrowly failed to get elected to Stormont last month.

Brenda Hale, who lost her Lagan Valley seat in the Assembly election, is another possible contender for the party nomination.

In East Belfast, the DUP seems confident in running its sitting MP, Gavin Robinson, without a pact.

It is understood that the party believes that the pact did not substantially benefit Mr Robinson in 2015 as many UUP supporters didn't follow the party's advice and voted for Alliance's Naomi Long.

The pact also helped Alliance by creating the image of male unionist candidates ganging up on Mrs Long, sources claimed.

Ahead of yesterday's meeting between the two unionist leaders, Mr Swann was highly critical of Mrs Foster's declaration that only the DUP could win South Belfast.

"It strikes me as a bit arrogant," he told BBC Radio Ulster. "I had hoped to go into discussions as Ulster Unionist leader with some sort of hope for unionism, for some sort of hope of coming to an agreement.

"I am still looking to have the conversation, still happy to go to the meeting, because unionism suffered at the March election and I was hoping there could have been a way forward and I am still hoping there is."

He added that while he was still willing to talk, Mrs Foster's attitude was "not helpful at this minute in time".

Meanwhile, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he remained open to discussing ways to co-operate with other pro-Remain parties to ensure the defeat of Brexit candidates.

He insisted it was not about unionism versus nationalism. "I am not interested in that, that's not what I am talking about," he said.

"I am talking about people here sending a message not only to Theresa May but to politicians at the heart of Europe that Northern Ireland is for Europe.

"Northern Ireland is for remain, Northern Ireland is against a hard border on this island and against a hard Tory, hard Brexit outcome."

Asked whether he envisaged parties standing aside to let others have a free run, or the selection of non-aligned independent candidates that pro-Remain parties could all support, he suggested either were possible.

"I don't think there is one easy fit for every single consistency," he said, adding that "creative solutions" were needed.

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