General Election: Steve Aiken says Ulster Unionist Party will not contest North Belfast - DUP welcomes support
Ulster Unionist Party leader-designate Steve Aiken has announced the party will not contest the North Belfast seat in the upcoming General Election.
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DUP leader Arlene Foster has welcomed the move.
The announcement comes amid a dispute over the UUP's stance on electoral pacts, with Mr Aiken previously stating the party would contest all of Northern Ireland's 18 Westminster seats.
Many unionists slammed the strategy over fears it would split the vote in key constituencies, in particular North Belfast, where DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds is facing a challenge from Sinn Fein's John Finucane.
In a statement issued on Sunday however, Steven Aiken rowed back on his stance, stating the party had made the decision not to stand in the constituency following "discussions with senior political and community figures" across North Belfast.
“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," he said.
"It is appalling and totally reprehensible and should have no place in Northern Ireland in the twenty first century."
Mr Aiken said, as Ulster Unionists, it is there role to "protect and promote the Union" and it is vital Northern Ireland MPs take their seats in Westminster.
“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," he said.
"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."
Arlene Foster said: "We welcome the fact that the Ulster Unionists have reached this decision. 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.”
In response to Steve Aiken's u-turn, Sinn Fein candidate John Finucane appealed to pro-Remain unionists to give him their vote.
“With the UUP withdrawing from this contest under pressure from loyalist paramilitaries, there is now no unionist candidate representing those who voted to remain in Europe," he said.
“I pledge that I will stand against the Tory Brexit agenda on behalf of all citizens in north Belfast.
“I am appealing to unionist voters to look at Sinn Fein’s solid record of delivery, ensuring protections for the economy in the north.
"The choice is clear between an Uber-Brexiteer or a candidate who will faithfully represent the views of the majority of people - unionist, nationalist and others - who reject the disaster of Brexit.”
Meanwhile, former Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott has refused to confirm if he will stand in the December poll in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency.
On Saturday, Arlene Foster said her party would back him as the agreed unionist candidate for the seat.
In a statement, she said she believes in unionist cooperation and parties working together to maximise representation.
"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 re-take this seat," she said.
"This is something voters from across the unionist community want to see happening and we will be urging DUP supporters to put their full weight behind Tom’s campaign."
Mr Elliott told the PA news agency that he is not prepared to confirm if he plans to run as a candidate.
“There is a selection meeting this week, I am not saying anything more at the moment,” he said.
In the 2015 general election, a unionist pact saw Tom Elliot win the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat, where he out-polled Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew by 530 votes.
Two years later, however, Ms Gildernew wrestled the seat back in the snap election, with a majority of 875.
Belfast Telegraph Digital