Foster welcomes Aiken U-turn as he is accused of 'bowing knee' to DUP
Arlene Foster said unionist parties must work together as she welcomed a decision by Steve Aiken to pull the UUP out of the race for North Belfast.
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The party's leader-in-waiting yesterday confirmed it would not field a candidate to avoid splitting the unionist vote.
It came eight days after Mr Aiken pledged the UUP would contest all 18 Northern Ireland seats in the December 12 election.
Mr Aiken said the party had made the decision not to stand in North Belfast following "discussions with senior political and community figures" in the area.
He said: "It is better to elect Nigel Dodds in North Belfast and hold him to account for his promises on the Union than facilitate the election of an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP who still cannot condemn IRA violence."
Last night he was accused of a major U-turn, even before he takes up the leader's role this weekend.
Former UUP chairman David Campbell, who left the party in 2017, said the events of the last week had been damaging for Mr Aiken.
He added: "It points to a degree of political naivete.
"He couldn't have got off to a worse start - and it's of his own making."
Alliance candidate Nuala McAllister said: "This backtracking by Steve Aiken is not only him caving in but also effectively bowing the knee to the DUP before he has even taken the reins of the UUP.
"He made a big play about running candidates in every constituency but has now lost any credibility he had."
Sinn Fein candidate John Finucane appealed to anti-Brexit unionists to help him win and "reject the disaster of Brexit".
However, Mr Aiken's move was welcomed by Mrs Foster, who 24 hours earlier said the DUP would not be contesting Fermanagh-South Tyrone to give the UUP a clear run.
She said: "They know that they cannot win in North Belfast and that first class representation is already provided by Nigel Dodds.
"I have a strong sense that unionism across Northern Ireland wants to see unionist parties working together for the Union.
"The Democratic Unionist Party will be to the fore in using our voice and our influence to ensure Northern Ireland's interests are protected."
Mr Campbell, who had criticised Mr Aiken's initial stance, backed the U-turn.
He added: "I welcome Steve Aiken's change of heart, and welcome Arlene Foster's decision not to contest the Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency. It's a considerable concession, as she may have had an interest in standing in the constituency herself."
In the past the DUP and UUP have formed electoral pacts in closely fought constituencies, such as North Belfast and Fermanagh-South Tyrone to avoid splitting the unionist vote.
In an interview in this newspaper on October 26 Mr Aiken had said "there will be no pacts with the DUP under my leadership", and said the UUP would run in all 18 constituencies.
However, it sparked a row within unionism, including criticism from within the UUP amid fears it would jeopardise Mr Dodds' chances of retaking the North Belfast seat.
On Thursday this newspaper revealed that 25 unionists in the North Belfast constituency had written a joint letter urging Mr Aiken to rethink his plans.
And the next day it emerged police were investigating threats against UUP staff members.
In a 450-word statement yesterday, Mr Aiken said: "In a modern democracy no one should have to face threats, intimidation or coercion of any sort because of their involvement in the democratic process.
"It is appalling and totally reprehensible and should have no place in Northern Ireland in the 21st century."
Mr Aiken said, as Ulster Unionists, it is their role to "protect and promote the Union" and vital Northern Ireland MPs take their seats in Westminster.
He added: "In the face of Boris Johnson's terrible deal which forces Northern Ireland towards the edge of the Union, we cannot gift a seat to Sinn Fein who support this direction either in North Belfast or Fermanagh and South Tyrone."
In Fermanagh-South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew has an 875-vote majority.
Mr Elliott had been expected to be the party's unanimous choice, but when contacted by the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, he refused to confirm if he plans to return to front line politics.
"There is a selection meeting taking place this week and I am considering the situation," he said.
On Saturday Mrs Foster said she believes in unionist co-operation and parties working together to maximise representation.
Mrs Foster said: "Despite the DUP being the largest unionist party in the constituency, it is right to put wider interest ahead of narrow party politics and indicate our support for Tom Elliott to retake this seat."
What the UUP man said yesterday ...
“The outcome of the forthcoming Westminster elections will impact on Northern Ireland more than any other part of the United Kingdom if plans for a border in the Irish Sea are implemented.
“DUP responsibility in this debacle cannot be whitewashed away. It was their acceptance of a regulatory border in the Irish Sea on the 2nd October, vigorously opposed by the Ulster Unionist Party, which opened the floodgates for Boris Johnson and his dreadful deal. The Union itself is now in a precarious position not in spite of the DUP’s stance but because of the DUP’s actions.
“We have been in discussions with senior political and community figures across North Belfast. In doing so we listened respectfully to all views expressed, including deeply held concerns that they will be unrepresented in Westminster in the critical months ahead.
“This has been done in the context of threats and intimidation against Ulster Unionist Party staff and members. In a modern democracy no one should have to face threats, intimidation or coercion of any sort because of their involvement in the democratic process. It is appalling and totally reprehensible and should have no place in Northern Ireland in the 21st century.
“As Ulster Unionists it is our role to protect and promote the Union. Therefore it is absolutely vital that MPs are returned who will take their seats and be able to influence the future direction of our nation.
“We are a party that believes first and foremost in the Union, and secondly in the importance of representative democracy. Therefore we have decided not to nominate a candidate in North Belfast in the forthcoming election. The DUP recognise that they cannot win North Belfast on their own, despite having dismissed the opinions of other unionists in the past. They cannot expect to continue on that basis and must now realise they need Ulster Unionist voices at Westminster.
“The choice in North Belfast is between Nigel Dodds as MP or an abstentionist MP who refuses to stand in Westminster to talk about health, education, justice, international affairs, or the future direction of the United Kingdom. In the face of Boris Johnson’s terrible deal which forces Northern Ireland towards the edge of the Union, we cannot gift a seat to Sinn Fein who support this direction either in North Belfast or Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
“It is better to elect Nigel Dodds in North Belfast and hold him to account for his promises on the Union than facilitate the election of an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP who still cannot condemn IRA violence. We acknowledge that this decision will be welcomed by some and will disappoint others, but we believe it is in the best interests of our country and the Union.”
What he said in Belfast Telegraph on October 26 ...
“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.”