Unionists consider pact to stop Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness becoming Northern Ireland's next First Minister
The UUP and DUP have revealed they may form a post-election pact to stop Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness becoming the First Minister.
Details of their plan to keep the First Minster’s post in unionist hands were revealed by UUP leader Tom Elliott.
Under Assembly rules, the party with the largest vote selects the First Minister.
In last year’s European elections the unionist vote was split between the UUP and DUP, with Sinn Fein topping the poll.
There are concerns among unionist politicians that the same could happen after the May 5 Assembly election.
“There is no difficulty, as far as I understand it, if parties form relationships after the election but before they nominate ministers,” Mr Elliott said.
However, Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP and senior strategist, reacted cautiously.
He said: “Obviously the best and most effective way to prevent Sinn Fein from becoming the largest party is to ensure the DUP |remains the largest party, but we are happy to co-operate with other unionists in the Assembly whatever the outcome of the election.”
Ulster Unionist chief whip Fred Cobain added: “We have taken legal advice.
“Our advice is that we could adopt a common manifesto with another unionist party after the election.
“If we were working together under an umbrella it would be very difficult for the courts to intervene.
“You need all the trappings of a party even though you are not a party. You need a single leader and a single nominating officer (who appoints ministers), probably the same person as well as a common manifesto, but it can all be done after the election.”
The approach on vote transfers and a post-election pact may puzzle unionist supporters who have become accustomed to bitter rivalry between the DUP and UUP. Only last week each party accused the other of hypocrisy. Mr Elliott described the DUP as “fundamentalist” and “tribal”.
“You need to scratch the surface (of the DUP) and see who you are getting. Are you telling me that Willie McCrea is a nice right of centre politician?” he asked.
The UUP leader went on: “Sad as I am, I recently looked through old DUP videos and party political broadcasts to see some of the blood and thunder within them.
“Some of those same people are still in the frontline.
“They act more like an independent Ulster party and use their link with the Union as secondary.”
Mr Elliott said he would contest any moves by the DUP to try and claim the unionist centre ground.
“We are still the centre right,” he said.
“If somebody came to try and take my house from me and push me out I would battle to keep it.
“That means we have to battle to keep the centre ground, and we will do that.”
He said the DUP and Sinn Fein “manage tribalism and sectarianism between them, one takes one pot of money, the other takes the other”.
However, Mr Elliott added that: “It is important, from a broad unionist perspective, to co-operate in vote transfers.
“Our literature will say that. We will be advising people to transfer to other pro-Union parties; it will be as simple as that.”
Mr Cobain said the question of a post-election merger of the UUP and DUP Assembly groups “had been seriously considered”.
He added: “It would be a matter for the party to discuss after the election.
“It is something which we will probably only contemplate if Sinn Fein emerged as the biggest party.”