Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

Watch: Message is loud and clear from North Belfast's unionists... give the DUP a free run in election

Following UUP's Steve Aiken's vow not to agree an electoral pact, fears mount vote may be split with Sinn Fein taking the seat

Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Ex-Royal Navy submarine commander and latter-day unionist Steve Aiken appeared to be running aground with his election strategy in north Belfast - including on the rather aptly-named Shore Road where few voters were willing to throw him a lifeline yesterday.

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Eight days ago the UUP leader-elect was unequivocal in his pledge to journalists that his party would run candidates in all 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland including Nigel Dodds' North Belfast seat.

But on Thursday night on BBC NI's The View, Mr Aiken seemed to be rowing back from his promise as he came under intense pressure from leading members of his party to avoid splitting the unionist vote, a move which could ease Sinn Fein to victory.

Mr Dodds spent most of yesterday working on constituency matters inside his office near the Seaview home of Crusaders FC.

He told the Belfast Telegraph he had been surprised by Mr Aiken's intervention on North Belfast.

"I have always worked closely alongside fellow unionists in North Belfast over many years and I know people here want to see unionist co-operation and are very concerned about anything which would put that in jeopardy," he said.

The DUP deputy leader added that Mr Aiken's proposal represented a very different approach from the ones taken by the Ulster Unionists in north Belfast in the 2015 and 2017 elections.

"I think it's fair to say that people here have been shocked and dismayed by his move," said the MP.

"People are entitled to argue their case and put forward their political points of view but I think that in North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone there is a yearning in the unionist community for co-operation and they don't see any merit in contesting each other."

Downstairs in the office a pile of Vote Dodds posters were waiting for DUP volunteers to distribute through the North Belfast constituency.

Outside on the Shore Road the first of the posters to go up appeared to be sending a message to Steve Aiken to give the DUP a free run, positioned as it was above an urban clearway sign.

Mr Aiken didn't say anything more about the polling controversy yesterday, but speculation was mounting that he would reverse his decision to fight North Belfast, especially after 25 prominent figures from the unionist community signed a letter voicing their "strong opposition" to any move that would split the vote in the constituency.

The letter pointed out that the seat, which was once held by Lord Carson, had always returned a unionist MP but that, they said, would be jeopardised by Mr Aiken fielding a UUP candidate.

One of the signatories was PUP leader Billy Hutchinson who predicted yesterday that Mr Aiken would do a U-turn.

"Steve Aiken is an intelligent man. There's not a chance he will split the vote.

"He would be committing political suicide," he said.

"He will eventually say that he has considered all the soundings that have been taken from his membership and he will give way, with the proviso that there should be a reciprocal move from the DUP in other areas."

Mr Dodds is defending a majority of just over 2,000 and Sinn Fein voters in the constituency were hoping yesterday that the UUP would put up a candidate and enhance the chances of victory for their man, Belfast's Lord Mayor John Finucane.

At Yorkgate shopping centre Jean Johnston from the New Lodge area said she thought a split vote could help Sinn Fein but she added that she wanted all politicians to do more to help ordinary people.

Two other local women agreed. Kathy White said: "The real priorities should be social issues like better housing. I am fed up hearing about Brexit."

Geraldine Moore said: "I will be voting for John Finucane.

"But I think the DUP and Sinn Fein will get their backsides warmed in this election. I think the changes in the law over abortion that Stormont couldn't stop were disgraceful."

Back on the Shore Road, voters were hoping that Mr Aiken would plot a new course.

"He should up periscope and see the real world around him," said one DUP supporter.

Another man, Alan Ritchie, said: "Mr Aiken should take the UUP out of any potential race here in North Belfast.

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Alan Ritchie

"Splitting the vote wouldn't help unionism."

Resident Ann Jones said: "I have nothing against Mr Aiken. But he mustn't open the door to Sinn Fein especially in a seat that has been unionist for so long."

Fellow local resident June Millar said: "I want Nigel Dodds to get back into Westminster without any opposition from the UUP. Nigel is a brilliant MP.

"He has helped me enormously in the past."

Samuel Robinson, who lives on the Shore Road, said he was completely lost about Brexit but he was clearer on the local political situation.

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Samuel Robinson

"Nigel Dodds should have a clear run without any interference from the Ulster Unionists," he said.

Rowland Ryan said: "I will be voting DUP and I think the UUP will drop their plans to contest the seat."

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Ivan Little talks to Rowland Ryan

Asked why he would be supporting Nigel Dodds, he replied: "I live next door to his office."

Another man who didn't want to give his name said Mr Aiken was wasting his time over North Belfast, adding: "There would be very little support around here for an Ulster Unionist candidate who would have no chance of winning and could give the seat to John Finucane."

Susan Harrison said: "I try to see both sides of an argument. But I don't want to see a split unionist vote that leaves Sinn Fein representing the area."

One UUP veteran, who didn't sign the letter, talked of his shock and frustration at Mr Aiken's stance on an electoral pact.

"He spoke too soon," he said. "Steve should have thought longer and harder before talking to the media. He should also have consulted with party members before going off on one."

Another claimed that what he called Mr Aiken's 'bull in a china shop' attitude had done the already ailing UUP even more irreparable damage, adding: "The party have been shipping votes for years and recent leaders Mike Nesbitt, Tom Elliott and Robin Swann have done little to improve the UUP's lot.

"Now Steve has made a woeful start and he's not even confirmed in his office yet."

One insider said: "Mr Aiken has certainly hit the ground running but he has stumbled in the process.

"People are saying that he'd done the UUP harm in North Belfast but voters across the province will be annoyed and it can only be another nail in the coffin of the party."

But not everyone will be voting no matter who stands.

Thomas Holmes, who is associated with local football club Brantwood, said: "I won't be going to the polls.

"I voted for Brexit but I'm still waiting and the politicians are getting money for old rope.

"At Brantwood we are waiting for approval from Stormont to go ahead with a new 3G pitch but there's no one there to sign it off."

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