General Election: Unionists pen letter urging UUP's Aiken not to split vote in North Belfast
A series of high-profile unionists have warned the UUP's leader-in-waiting that his opposition to electoral pacts could see unionism lose its hold on North Belfast.
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Twenty-five senior local figures - including current and former Ulster Unionist members - have written to Steve Aiken.
In the letter they outline their "strong opposition" to any proposal to split the unionist vote in the constituency in December's General Election.
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They note the seat, once held by Edward Carson, has always returned a unionist MP, but this is now in jeopardy. They tell Mr Aiken the "only consequence" of running a candidate against Nigel Dodds, the sitting MP, will be to help Sinn Fein.
Mr Dodds is defending a majority of just over 2,000, and faces pressure from Sinn Fein candidate John Fincuane.
Speaking last night, veteran North Belfast UUP member David Browne, who has signed the letter, hit out at Mr Aiken and claimed no one in the constituency has been spoken to about the pact decision.
It is the latest twist in a row within unionism sparked by comments that Mr Aiken made to the Belfast Telegraph.
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In an interview on Saturday, he said "there will be no pacts with the DUP under my leadership", accusing the party of having "besmirched unionism with its corruption and sleaze".
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.
Mr Aiken has faced growing criticism from the DUP and former UUP chairman David Campbell over his comments.
Mr Campbell, who quit the party in 2017, said it was wrong to dismiss "sensible electoral arrangements" with the DUP.
Now 25 unionists in the North Belfast constituency have come together to urge Mr Aiken to rethink his plans.
The signatures include Frazer Agnew, a current UUP councillor and former North Belfast MLA; Mr Browne, the former UUP group leader on Belfast City Council; and John Scott, who considers himself an Ulster Unionist voter, but is supporting Mr Dodds.
Other signatories are Spencer Beattie, the County Grand Master of Belfast County Grand Lodge, and PUP leader Billy Hutchinson.
Only Nigel can retain this seat. Letter
They state that: "The North Belfast seat holds a special place in the heart of the unionist community across Northern Ireland. The seat once held by Edward Carson, since its creation, North Belfast has always returned a unionist Member of Parliament.
"For decades the unionist community in North Belfast faced the brunt of the sectarian murder campaign of the IRA. It was the collective unwavering resolve and unity of purpose amongst our community that gave us the strength to carry on.
"It is that sense of unity and standing together that continues to define the unionist community in North Belfast to this day.
"Whilst we the undersigned come from different political viewpoints, as unionists, we are all united in our desire to ensure North Belfast returns a unionist Member of Parliament."
Mr Dodds has been MP for North Belfast since 2001, when he took the seat from the UUP's Cecil Walker. By 2010 his majority had been cut to 2,224.
In 2015 and 2017 the UUP did not stand a candidate in the constituency. At the last election, Mr Dodds had a 2,081 majority over Sinn Fein's John Finucane.
The letter adds: "Nigel Dodds has been the collective choice of our united unionist community in North Belfast.
"The only consequence of running a candidate against Nigel will be to help Sinn Fein.
"Only Nigel can retain this seat."
Mr Browne, a former Belfast City councillor and past chair of North Belfast UUP, said that if the seat were won by Sinn Fein as a result of Mr Aiken's decision, both the party and the incoming leader would "never be forgiven" by the electorate.
"No one has contacted North Belfast to the best of my knowledge to ask what their view is," he said. "And as far as I'm concerned, as a member for over 30 years, who carried North Belfast, who looked after North Belfast for over 20 years, the party executive makes the decisions, not someone who has put his name forward for the leadership.
"He could have at least waited until he was leader."
Earlier this week, Mr Aiken defended his decision not to have pacts with the DUP.
He said: "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'."
The UUP has been contacted for a response.