UUP leader in waiting Steve Aiken rules out pact and slams DUP for 'tarnishing unionism'
Ulster Unionist Steve Aiken has ruled out any electoral pacts with the DUP under his leadership and has accused that party of "blackening the name of unionism".
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Aiken said his party hoped to win back at least two seats in the forthcoming Westminster election.
It is targeting South Antrim and Fermanagh and South Tyrone where Tom Elliott is reportedly set to be announced as a candidate next week.
Mr Aiken - who will succeed Robin Swann unopposed as UUP leader in a fortnight - said the DUP had "besmirched unionism with its corruption and sleaze".
He branded Arlene Foster's leadership of the DUP as disastrous and said failure would be her political epitaph over Brexit and the suspension of devolution for almost three years.
He expressed "admiration and respect" for Alliance leader Naomi Long but said he was determined that the UUP win back the voters it has lost to her party.
Mr Aiken signalled that he would move the UUP to an unambiguously pro-Remain position.
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He pledged to rebuild and reorganise his party in Belfast where it had only two councillors elected in May.
He said he aimed to make it more appealing to the broad "pro-Union community and those content with the constitutional status quo who might not label themselves unionist".
Mr Aiken said he wanted voters who regarded themselves as cultural nationalists to be able to support his party.
He said: "The UUP will be contesting every seat in the general election. We will be aiming to win back Fermanagh and South Tyrone from Sinn Fein and South Antrim from the DUP.
"There will be no pacts with the DUP under my leadership.
"There is only one candidate who can defeat Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and the DUP know who that candidate is."
Mr Aiken 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," he added.
In a hard-hitting attack on Mrs Foster's party, Mr Aiken said: "The DUP has been disastrous as the biggest unionist party. It has put a border down the Irish Sea. It has been involved in RHI, Nama, Red Sky and the entire alphabet soup of scandals.
"At Westminster, the DUP is synonymous with the antics of Ian Paisley and his luxury holidays, and Sammy Wilson and his denial of climate change."
He added: "This will be the most important general election since World War II.
"It is time to get unionism back on track and to send sensible, competent representatives to Parliament who are capable of defending the Union. The DUP has made Northern Ireland a place apart in the UK and that is very dangerous indeed."
He added: "Mrs Foster has led unionists into a disastrous position constitutionally. That will be her political epitaph."
He accused Mrs Foster of "antagonising not only nationalists but the 20-30% of the community who identify as neither nationalist or unionist but 'other'".
He said he aimed to rebuild support for unionism among those voters.
While not an Orangeman, he voiced his support for the loyal orders "as part of our rich cultural heritage".
The UUP leader-in-waiting said his party would engage in "friendly rivalry" with Alliance as it attempted to win back former voters who had switched to Mrs Long's party.
"I know Naomi well and respect and admire her immensely. She had done a great job for her party in a complex and difficult environment," he said.
"But I want to bring those people who lent their vote to Alliance back to their natural home in the UUP."
Mr Aiken, who voted Remain, said that those unionists who had backed Brexit in the referendum had not voted for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU while the rest of the UK left.
"The only deal on the table is Boris Johnson's deal which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU and separates us from our largest market in the rest of the UK.
"Looking forward, if a deal cant be reached which means no North-South or East-West borders, then Remain is the only option."
Mr Aiken reitererated his support for same-sex marriage and the right-to-choose on abortion.
He said he was "uncomfortable" with abortion outside of cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality but he added: "I have four daughters and my two grown-up ones tell me that men must stop interfering with decisions women make about their bodies. I listen to my daughters."
Mr Aiken has only been in frontline Northern Ireland politics since 2016, having spent years before that in the Royal Navy.