The incoming leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has performed a U-turn on his opposition to an electoral pact with the Democratic Unionist Party.
In a statement this afternoon, Steve Aiken said his party would not run a candidate in North Belfast for fear of splitting the unionist vote in the constituency.
The move comes just days after he ruled out a unionist electoral pact for next month’s UK Elections - and pledged run a candidate in all 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland.
UUP officials have faced intimidation in the days since he ruled out the pact – with a “number of calls of a threatening nature” received at party HQ.
— Ulster Unionist (@uuponline) November 3, 2019
This afternoon, Mr Aiken confirmed that his party would not stand in North Belfast – leaving DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds free to take on Sinn Féin candidate John Finucane.
“It is better to elect Nigel Dodds in North Belfast and hold him to account for his promises on the Union than facilitate the election of an abstentionist Sinn Féin MP who still cannot condemn IRA violence,” he said.
“We acknowledge that this decision will be welcomed by some and will disappoint others, but we believe it is in the best interests of our country and the Union.”
He said he took the decision following talks with “senior political and community figures across North Belfast.”
“This has been done in the context of threats and intimidation against Ulster Unionist Party staff and members,” he said.
“In a modern democracy no-one should have to face threats, intimidation or coercion of any sort because of their involvement in the democratic process.
“It is appalling and totally reprehensible and should have no place in Northern Ireland in the twenty first century.”
On Newstalk Breakfast with Susan Keogh this morning, former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt warned that it would be ‘nothing short of hypocrisy’ for his party to sign up to an electoral pact with the DUP.
“Since the last election, the DUP have been embroiled in a sort of alphabet soup of scandals – both corporately with the likes of RHI and individually with Ian Paisley Jr,” he said.
“And also their stance on Brexit, I think, is an existential threat to the future of the United Kingdom.
“So it is very difficult to be making those sort of criticisms of a party and then to go into the ballot box on the 12th of December coming and give them one of their preferences. That is nothing short in my analysis of hypocrisy.”
Meanwhile, the DUP leader Arlene Foster has said her party will support the UUP candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in an effort to “maximise representation.”