Robin Swann: 'Arrogant' and 'unhelpful' DUP demand UUP step aside in South Belfast
DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party will not stand aside in south Belfast because her party is in a stronger position than the Ulster Unionists to take the seat from the SDLP's Dr Alasdair McDonnell.
The DUP and Ulster Unionists are to meet today to discuss the possibility of forming a unionist unity pact ahead of June's Westminster election.
Details of the meeting came as the UUP confirmed it would not contest three constituencies - North Belfast, West Belfast and Foyle - after a meeting of the party's ruling executive at the weekend.
It was reported that the former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt was considering contesting south Belfast.
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Arlene Foster said: "...there can be no argument that the DUP is not only the lead unionist party but the lead party in South Belfast. Sadly, in 2015, the UUP did not accept that reality but, given the results in 2016 and 2017, it cannot now be disputed."
However, the new Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said: "It strikes me as a bit arrogant.
Speaking on BBC Good Morning Ulster, he said: "I had hoped to go into discussions as Ulster Unionist leader with some sort of hope for unionism, for some sort of hope of coming to an agreement.
"I am still looking to have the conversation, still happy to go to the meeting, because unionism suffered at the March election and I was hoping there could have been a way forward and I am still hoping there is.
"But I am willing to talk - that attitude is not helpful at this minute in time."
In the last election in 2015, Mr McDonnell held on despite winning the lowest ever share of the vote of any successful MP, at 24.5%.
Mr Nesbitt declined to comment on reports that he will be the agreed unionist unity candidate in South Belfast in June's election.
Mr Nesbitt, who stepped down as leader following the recent assembly poll, said he had "no comment" to make when contacted by The Irish News yesterday, adding that selection issues were a matter for the new UUP leader Robin Swann.
According to reports on Saturday Mr Nesbitt, who was returned as an MLA for Strangford in March's Assembly election, had emerged as the leading contender after internal discussions within the UUP.
In 2015, DUP candidate Jonathan Bell - since suspended by the party over the RHI scandal - was just 900 votes short of the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell in South Belfast.
The 3,500 votes that went to Ulster Unionist candidate Rodney McCune would have got Mr Bell comfortably across the line .
South Belfast was held by unionists up until 2005, when Mr McDonnell benefited from a split unionist vote.
The UUP's two sitting MPs, Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan, have been re-selected to defend their seats.
Mr Elliott benefited from a unionist pact two years ago to regain the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat by 530 votes from Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew, while Danny Kinahan ousted the DUP's William McCrea in South Antrim with a majority of less than 1,000.
Mrs Foster said: "At my invitation I will be meeting with UUP leader Robin Swann MLA later today to discuss wider election issues. I welcome his party's decision not to field a candidate in North Belfast, West Belfast and Foyle. It is beyond doubt that Nigel Dodds and Gavin Robinson are the standard-bearers for unionism in North and East Belfast respectively.
She added: "In 2015, despite having two DUP MLAs to the UUP's one, we stood aside in Fermanagh/South Tyrone to allow Tom Elliott the chance to be elected to Parliament and provide the people of Fermanagh/South Tyrone with active representation. Those co-operative efforts were successful."
Green leader Steven Agnew, who has said he will be talking to other anti-Brexit parties this week about possible electoral alliances, told The Irish News yesterday that he would still be seeking meetings with the Ulster Unionists and the North Down MP the independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon.