Greens to back SDLP in South Belfast as UUP urged to stand aside in more seats
Hanna favourite to replace Little Pengelly as pro-Remainers join forces
The Green Party is set to stand aside in South Belfast and to endorse SDLP MLA Claire Hanna in next month's Westminster election.
The party is also strongly considering endorsing independent unionist MP Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down.
An announcement is expected within the next 24 hours after arrangements are finalised with local party members.
The Greens are preparing to run in East Belfast where Alliance leader Naomi Long is hoping to unseat the DUP's Gavin Robinson.
But it was last night unclear whether they would stand aside in North Belfast. Sources said the party had been intending to run but was now having second thoughts after the SDLP's decision to withdraw from the race.
As Sinn Fein and the SDLP yesterday announced they were standing aside in key seats to help other pro-Remain candidates, ex-Ulster Unionist chairman David Campbell called for his former party to stand aside for the DUP in both East and South Belfast.
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"Having come from the UUP, I know their votes in North, South and East Belfast are derisory," said Mr Campbell. "But they are sufficient in a very tight contest to make the difference between winning and losing.
"The UUP has already announced it is pulling out in North Belfast. Doing the same in South and East Belfast would allow the party to focus its energies on winning Fermanagh and South Tyrone which represents its best chance of taking a Westminster seat."
However, Mr Campbell, who is chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group for loyalism, said the SDLP was now favourite to win South Belfast from the DUP.
"Sinn Fein pulling out has changed things," he said. "It is now extremely difficult for Emma (Little Pengelly) to win."
It is understood the Greens are planning to actively canvass for Ms Hanna and Lady Hermon who they see as strong non-sectarian pro-Remain voices.
The party's decision to back the SDLP in South Belfast is a major blow to Alliance's Paula Bradshaw who is vying with Ms Hanna to be the leading Remain challenger to Ms Little Pengelly.
Last night the DUP MP branded Ms Hanna the "joint Sinn Fein/SDLP candidate". She said: "Whilst the public wants members of Parliament who will do the job they are elected to, the SDLP will now be supporting the very abstentionist policy they were criticising only a few weeks ago. Recent elections show that the battle in South Belfast will be between the Alliance Party and the DUP.
"In an attempt to make itself relevant the SDLP will set aside any policy simply to take a seat from unionism."
Ms Bradshaw said: "Voters are not commodities to be traded between parties behind closed doors. We believe pacts deprive voters of choice - they are also patronising, both presuming you can dictate who your supporters vote for and they cannot decide for themselves if they wish to vote tactically. Alliance does not take voters for granted or presume their support. We will continue to work hard to earn every vote we receive."
The Alliance candidate added: "As a progressive, inclusive, pro-Remain party, we are well placed to unite people from right across the community behind a positive vision.
"We have been clear we will not only contest all 18 seats but, if we win, will take our seats in Parliament to ensure Northern Ireland's best interests are protected."
Meanwhile, the TUV said a "nationalist electoral pact aimed at removing unionists" had been formed. "The fact that, if successful, the impact of this pact will be to leave half of Belfast's seats without representation in the House of Commons is shameful," a party spokesperson said.
"How the SDLP can claim to have any credibility in asking people to vote for their leader in Foyle on the grounds that he will turn up and actually do the job while effectively endorsing an abstentionist in North Belfast is a circle which is impossible to square with any credibility."
DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party would fight the election on its "clear record of delivery for everyone in Northern Ireland".
She said: "The DUP has used its influence at Westminster to deliver over £1.5bn for Northern Ireland, but we want to get more done. Every vote will count in this election and Northern Ireland's voice must be heard inside the House of Commons rather than being ignored on the sidelines.
"Supporting a candidate who will not turn up, or whose voice will not be heard is a wasted vote. DUP MPs will not support a Corbyn government but will continue to use our influence for the benefit of everyone."
Mrs Foster added: "Whilst others boycott Westminster and the Assembly, the DUP wants to get Northern Ireland moving again with a re-established Executive and Assembly taking meaningful decisions on health and education."