The DUP could be set to stand aside for the Ulster Unionists in key Parliamentary seats in an attempt to stave off a mauling at the polls, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Senior members accept the party should consider giving the UUP a free run in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and perhaps South Belfast to maximise unionist representation in the next Parliament.
The deal could come in return for UUP support for the DUP over any eventual package on policing and justice which is, however, by no means certain.
Talks between the two parties on a deal which could win back South Belfast from SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell and Fermanagh/South Tyrone from Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew foundered early last year despite a DUP offer to stand down in one in return for the UUP withdrawing in the other.
Since then the UUP has forged its partnership with the Conservatives who have pledged to fight all 18 constituencies, ruling out any side-deals or pacts with the DUP.
However, senior DUP sources believe the stand-off over policing and justice will come to a head within days if a date is not set for the transfer.
That looming crisis means DUP politicians are giving serious consideration to standing aside in favour of Ulster Unionists in some seats at the national vote. Sacrificing Parliamentary results is not thought of as a high price to pay if it paves the way for further deals for an Assembly campaign.
The TUV’s significant share of the unionist vote means a three-way split throws up the very real possibility that Sinn Fein could become the largest party at Stormont with Martin McGuinness as First Minister.
And that is a situation that “no unionist is ready to accept” a senior unionist source said, admitting: “We have to be looking at closer co-operation between Unionist parties, particularly in Fermanagh/South Tyrone”.
“Realistically we have probably got until the end of next week to sort this (devolution talks) out.
“Sinn Fein has set many deadlines in the past but we need to see progress on the outstanding issues.”