UUP's Aiken insists members back election vow not to work with DUP
UUP leader-in-waiting rules out any pact as war of words between unionists grows
Ulster Unionist leader-in-waiting Steve Aiken has said his decision not to engage in electoral pacts with the DUP has the support of other party members.
It comes amid an ongoing war of words between Northern Ireland's two main unionist parties over electoral co-operation.
At the weekend Mr Aiken said there would be no pacts with the DUP under his leadership, insisting that his party will stand candidates in all 18 Westminster constituencies.
The UUP hopes to win back at least two seats - Fermanagh-South Tyrone from Sinn Fein and South Antrim from the DUP.
However, the comments sparked anger, with DUP leader Arlene Foster accusing Mr Aiken of being willing to "hand seats to Sinn Fein" by ruling out running candidates on a single unionist ticket.
Former UUP chairman David Campbell, who left the party in 2017, said it was wrong to dismiss what he described as "sensible electoral arrangements" with the DUP.
Asked yesterday who he had consulted in the UUP before ruling out a pact, Mr Aiken insisted the party had been having "long discussions" about the way forward.
Pressed on whether he had talked to Tom Elliott, the expected UUP candidate in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, Mr Aiken told the Stephen Nolan Show: "I have been talking to all members of the party."
Asked again on Mr Elliott's thoughts on the pact, he added: "We in the Ulster Unionist Party are very clear, we are going to run in all 18 seats, because we cannot in all right turn round and say to the people of Northern Ireland 'vote for a pact with the DUP, support the DUP - the party who put a border down the Irish Sea'."
Asked again if Mr Elliott backed it, he replied: "Yes, Tom does support it."
Mr Elliott could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Mr Aiken will succeed Robin Swann unopposed as UUP leader on November 9.
He was due to meet with representatives in Fermanagh-South Tyrone last night ahead of confirmation that Mr Elliott will be the party's candidate there.
In the past the DUP and UUP have formed electoral pacts in closely fought constituencies so as not to split the unionist vote.
Fermanagh-South Tyrone has been one such battleground between unionism and nationalism in recent general elections.
Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew had held the seat since 2001, but lost out in 2015 to UUP candidate Mr Elliott after the DUP stood aside in an agreed unionist pact.
Ms Gildernew won the seat back in 2017. Her current majority is 875.
Mr Aiken's comments yesterday ignited a fresh row within unionism.
DUP South Antrim MP Paul Girvan said: "Steve Aiken needs to take ownership of his own mess rather than attempt to deflect attention to the DUP.
"The DUP's position has always been abundantly clear, we work with other unionists to maximise representation and unionist co-operation.
"We are not about promoting those who would destroy the Union.
"We want to see unionism working together and embracing a broad range of views.
"Steve Aiken on the other hand appears to have decided that his only pitch for the leadership of the UUP is to promote a policy that would help Sinn Fein and to run in all 18 constituencies.
"Is Steve now going to help Sinn Fein, is that his policy?
"We want to see unionism working collaboratively and embracing a broad range of views."
He added: "There should always be an agreed vision to maximise pro-Union representation, particularly when the alternative would be absentee republican MPs."
Danny Kinahan, an Ulster Unionist councillor and former South Antrim MP, said he was "staggered" by the DUP's position.
"If they want to look at things that are destroying the Union they should start closer to home," he said.
"The only unionist party to support Sinn Fein's goal of a border in the Irish Sea is the DUP.
"Their arrogance and refusal to listen to other unionists has seen them let in a massive own goal with the UK government now proposing a Brexit deal that puts a border down the Irish Sea.
"Their scandal-ridden actions within government and lack of attention to detail has gifted Sinn Fein a leg-up at every election.
"Yet the DUP say it is always somebody else's fault.
"The DUP supported a border in the Irish Sea and consistently put their own selfish party interests before the best interests of our country.
"That is not a position we can endorse."