Belfast Telegraph

New UUP chief Steve Aiken looks to unseat DUP stalwart Sammy Wilson

UUP MLA Alan Chambers to contest North Down

New Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken addresses members at the party conference at the weekend
New Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken addresses members at the party conference at the weekend
Gareth Cross

By Gareth Cross

UUP leader Steve Aiken will challenge DUP incumbent Sammy Wilson for the East Antrim seat at the upcoming General Election.

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Former submarine commander Mr Aiken has a huge job on his hands if he wants to unseat Mr Wilson on December 12.

The DUP veteran has held the seat since defeating the UUP's Roy Beggs Sr in 2001 and enjoys a majority of nearly 16,000.

In the 2017 General Election UUP candidate John Stewart polled 4,424 votes to Mr Wilson's 21,873.

It will be 57-year-old Mr Aiken's first General Election as a candidate after he was elected as an MLA for South Antrim in 2016.

Also running in East Antrim are the Alliance Party's Danny Donnelly and Sinn Fein's Oliver McMullan.

Ahead of becoming party leader Mr Aiken had pledged the UUP would run in all 18 Northern Ireland constituencies and faced criticism after pulling out of North Belfast so as not to split the unionist vote for DUP MP Nigel Dodds.

Police are investigating alleged paramilitary threats made to the party in the wake of Mr Aiken's initial pledge.

The party has also announced that MLA Alan Chambers will bid to succeed Lady Sylvia Hermon as MP for North Down.

Lady Hermon won the seat for the UUP in the 2001 General Election, before leaving the party due to an electoral partnership with the Conservatives.

Alan Chambers
Alan Chambers

She won the seat as an independent unionist in 2010 and held it in 2015 and 2017 before announcing her retirement from politics earlier this month.

The DUP candidate Alex Easton will be hoping to take the seat after running Lady Hermon close in the 2017 General Election, losing by just 1,208 votes.

North Down MLA Mr Chambers' candidacy will mark the first time the UUP have run in the seat since 2010 when joint UUP and Conservative Party candidate Ian Parsley came second to Lady Hermon, who had a majority of over 14,000.

The 72-year-old has been involved in politics in North Down since the early 1990s and contested the 1995 Westminster election as an independent before joining the UUP in 2015 and becoming an MLA in 2016. He is also a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Also running in North Down is Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry.

Mr Chambers said that he was honoured to be selected and realised he would have an "awesome task" in succeeding Lady Hermon if elected.

"Like many Unionists I supported Remain in the 2016 Referendum. Without a plan to execute the outcome of the nationwide result to withdraw, there was always the danger Brexit would become an existential threat to the future of the United Kingdom," the North Down MLA said.

"Even the DUP have wakened up to this now. The current Boris Brexit deal represents such a threat. If we cannot exit on better terms I want us to remain. To those unionists who supported Brexit I suspect they did not vote for an outcome that meant NI would become detached from the United Kingdom. We joined together, we leave together or we remain together.

"For those considering support for a DUP candidate I hope they will consider the record of the DUP in Westminster and at home. Their actions have been characterised by failure and well documented examples of incompetence. North Down has the chance in this election to avoid adding to this catalogue of failure."

A DUP spokesman described Mr Chambers’ comments as “foolish and petty”

“The DUP used its influence in Westminster to deliver £1.5billion for hospitals, schools and roads this attack is foolish and petty. With SF and the SDLP working hand in hand, unionists should be working together rather than engineering attacks on each other,” the spokesman said.    

"A hung parliament is a realistic outcome therefore Northern Ireland needs a strong team of DUP MPs who will have influence in Westminster and stop Jeremy Corbyn sneaking into Downing Street. A strong DUP vote will send a message against any border in the Irish Sea and ensure Sinn Fein gets the message that its time to get back to work in Stormont."

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Michael Henderson is greeted by a well wisher (Liam McBurney/PA)

Meanwhile, the UUP’s candidate in South Belfast, Michael Henderson has said he will face down calls to pull out of the race.

“Definitely not, I am here to give people a choice and hope people will accept that choice,” he said. He added he would not be deterred by criticism from other unionists that he was hurting DUP MP Emma Little Pengelly’s chances of re-election.

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna is favourite to take the seat with Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw close behind.

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