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Nesbitt dismisses talk of DUP pact

John Manley Political Reporter

ULSTER Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has responded coolly to the latest speculation about a pact with the DUP. The former newsreader described senior DUP members' claims of recent discussions about unionist unity as nothing more than "tea room chats".

He accused his unionist rivals of attempting to deflect attention from a four per cent slide in the DUP's vote in last week's council elections.

The DUP and Ulster Unionists most recently co-operated in last year's Mid-Ulster by-election, fielding Portadown undertaker Nigel Lutton as a unionist unity candidate. Mr Lutton was beaten by Sinn Fein's Francie Molloy with a majority of more than 4,600.

However, if the two main unionist parties were to co-operate in fighting other Westminster constituencies, there is a strong likelihood they could unseat a nationalist MP.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell is thought to be particularly vulnerable in South Belfast, where Ulster Unionist and leading Orangeman Martin Smyth held the seat until 2005.

Other constituencies where a unionist unity candidate could potentially top the poll include Sinn Fein-held Fermanagh-South Tyrone and East Belfast, where DUP leader Peter Robinson was ousted by Alliance's Naomi Long in 2010.

There is also speculation that an agreed unionist candidate in North Down could defeat former Ulster Unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon, who resigned from the party over its merger with the Conservatives.

Over the weekend, as the DUP faced a significant slide in its over-all vote in the local government elections, two of its MPs indicated that fresh discussions with the UUP about unionist unity had begun.

Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson and North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jnr both made reference to the possibility of a pact, with the latter saying the DUP had sent an "emissary" to speak to Mr Nesbitt's party.

But the Ulster Unionist leader, buoyed by his party's strong performance in the council elections, was dismissive of the DUP claims.

He said the MPs' suggestion of on-going talks over co-operation for next year's general election were "not true".

"If there have been conversations in recent months, they were at that exact level - tea-room chat between staffers," Mr Nesbitt said.

"I state categorically, there has been no negotiation."

The Strangford MLA said the DUP was trying deflect attention from "their worst performance in recent years".

"Simply, the DUP have peaked, the Ulster Unionists have bottomed out and are back on the rise, and the DUP couldn't handle it," he said.

The UUP leader described DUP leader Peter Robinson's claim that Alliance's Naomi Long was "on notice" in East Belfast as "outrageous".

"If Mr Robinson cares to reflect on the results in the key DEAs (district electoral areas) of Titanic and Ormiston, he will discover that the poll toppers were Ulster Unionists," he said.

"Both Sonia Copeland and Jim Rodgers had enough votes to pull another candidate through, and in Jim's case, that is exactly what happened."

The DUP was unavailable for comment.

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