Steve Aiken under pressure as split grows in UUP over dismissal of vote pacts
A growing split was emerging in the Ulster Unionist Party last night after senior figures offered diametrically opposed views on leader-in-waiting Steve Aiken's rejection of pan-unionist electoral pacts.
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Mr Aiken sparked a row by pledging to turn down any deals with the DUP in marginal seats for the December 12 poll.
Last night Upper Bann MLA Doug Beattie came out in support of Mr Aiken, insisting that the policy was in line with the UUP's stance at the general election in 2017.
But former Lord Mayor of Belfast Jim Rodgers, a party member for 42 years, called for the "unionist family" to stand together against nationalism.
In the past the DUP and UUP have formed electoral pacts in closely fought constituencies, such as North Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to avoid splitting the unionist vote.
But in an interview on Saturday, Mr Aiken said "there will be no pacts with the DUP under my leadership".
The row continued as this newspaper reported yesterday that a group of 25 unionists in the North Belfast constituency had written to Mr Aiken, calling on him to reconsider.
They fear that splitting the unionist vote would gift the seat to Sinn Fein candidate John Finucane.
DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said running two unionist candidates would end hopes of winning back the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat from Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew.
Former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliot was the most recent unionist MP for the area, but he lost to Ms Gildernew by 875 votes in 2017.
Last night Mr Beattie was unequivocal in support of the no-pact strategy, despite the intervention of the group of unionists in North Belfast.
"There was no pact in unionism in 2017, the last general election," Mr Beattie said. "Our party leader-to-be Steve Aiken has laid out his position and there are lots of conversations yet to be had between now and December 12.
"I think people need to just look at what happened in 2017 and understand that (while) the situation has somewhat changed since then, in many ways, nothing has changed."
Asked if he backed Mr Aiken's policy, Mr Beattie replied: "I support my party leader. It's not for me to discuss our strategy, with respect, with a newspaper. I discuss party strategy with my party leader and my party officers, and we will do that."
Mr Rodgers, however, warned the no-pact strategy posed dangers for unionism at a critical time.
"I've been in the Ulster Unionist Party for 43 years and I have always believed that it's important for the unionist family to work together," he said.
"We have other parties who are anxious to take us out of the UK and bring us into a 32-county Irish republic.
"We have to do everything possible to guard against that.
"What people continually say to me is that unionists must work in the best interests of the Union and where possible ensure that they don't cause divisions among themselves."
Mr Rodgers said he had the right, with all his experience, to express his views.
He added: "As far as I'm concerned - and there are a lot of people discussing this with me - nine out of 10 people are saying that unionists must get together and stop cutting lumps out of each other.
"Nothing can be gained from that. The likes of Sinn Fein and others just gloat at seeing one unionist verbally attacking another unionist."
The open letter sent by 25 North Belfast unionists tells Mr Aiken the "only consequence" of running a candidate against Mr Dodds, the sitting MP, will be to help Sinn Fein.
One of the signatories is former UUP Mayor of Newtownabbey John Scott. He describes himself as an Ulster Unionist voter who is supporting Mr Dodds in the election.
"You put your country before your party and I think this is where Steve has got it wrong, especially in north Belfast," he said.
Mr Aiken was unavailable for comment, but the UUP said: "The letter has been received and we are listening respectfully to all views in the community."