Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Aiken taking a huge risk by going up against DUP major player

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken
Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Steve Aiken's decision to stand as a candidate in East Antrim has potential disaster written right all over it.

For the new Ulster Unionist leader to go head-to-head with one of the DUP's most popular politicians seems lunacy.

It's not a battle he needed to fight, and a wise call would have been for him to personally sit out next month's Westminster poll. Instead, he's gone wandering into a neighbouring constituency where the sitting MP holds a 16,000 strong majority.

Unless the UUP pulls a rabbit out of the hat, Sammy Wilson will be again elected with ease.

Aiken is a newcomer to politics, and it shows. He's just four days in the job as leader and he wants to take on his party's main electoral rival. Indeed, he's as keen as mustard, and that's no bad thing.

He can't stand in his own South Antrim constituency, where Danny Kinahan will attempt to win back the seat he lost to the DUP's Paul Girvan two years ago.

As Aiken wants to lead from the front and run in the Westminster election, his choices were East Antrim or North Down. Given that Mike Nesbitt has ruled himself out of the latter on health grounds, the UUP has made a wise choice in fielding MLA Alan Chambers there.

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He's not high-profile across Northern Ireland but he's a proven vote-winner in the constituency. The fact that he's not a big name also means that if he is out-polled by Alliance's Steven Farry, it's not a major embarrassment for his party.

The same can't be said of Aiken in East Antrim. Given his U-turn on the UUP contesting all 18 constituencies, the former submarine commander has got off to a woeful start at the UUP's helm.

He may think that in light of Boris Johnson's betrayal of the DUP on Brexit, taking on that party's Brexit spokesperson is a smart move.

But the evidence so far is that unionist grassroots blame the Tories, not the DUP. Personally entering an election he could easily have sat out could expose Aiken and not his main political rival.

In the 2017 Westminster poll, the UUP secured a 12% vote to Alliance's 16% and the DUP's 57%. Now that its leader's name is on the ballot paper, it can't afford another result like that, and third place, again. It should be running a local MLA. Aiken needs to make a big impact over the next month. Otherwise, Submarine Steve will be in very treacherous waters.

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