Northern Ireland news

UUP's Mike Nesbitt says last unionist election pact took six months to agree

Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt with the party's new leader Robin Swann. Picture by Mal McCann
Brendan Hughes

FORMER UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has said an electoral pact with the DUP will be "difficult" – as a deal last time took six months to negotiate.

Mr Nesbitt said he would support his successor Robin Swann in any discussions around securing a unionist pact for the Westminster vote in seven weeks' time.

But the Strangford MLA, who resigned as UUP leader after the party's poor result in last month's assembly poll, said the "tight time frame" made any agreement hard to achieve.

He also acknowledged that reaching a deal is further complicated by the parties' opposing stances during the EU referendum campaign.

The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson said his party wants to "quickly" arrange talks with the UUP on a potential pact, while Robin Swann said he was "open" to discussions.

A unionist pact in the Westminister poll in 2015 saw Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew lose her seat in Fermanagh-South Tyrone to Ulster Unionist candidate Tom Elliott.

And in East Belfast, the deal led to Alliance's Naomi Long being unseated by the DUP's Gavin Robinson.

Asked whether there should be a unionist pact this time, Mr Nesbitt said: "It's not my call. All I would say is ahead of 2015 I identified the opportunity for an anti-abstentionist arrangement.

"The way events go and the way arrangements go, it ended up a slightly bigger arrangement than what I either wanted or was comfortable with, but the fruits were there in terms of taking back Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

"If there is going to be any discussion about an arrangement, that would be led on the Ulster Unionism side by Robin and he will have my support.

"These negotiations are never easy. Last time from memory it took six months of on-off chats with Peter Robinson to reach a deal. Obviously no-one has that luxury this time."

Announcing the election on Tuesday, Theresa May said she wanted to be able to strengthen the British government's position in Brexit negotiations with the EU.

But while the DUP supported Brexit during the EU referendum, the Ulster Unionists recommended "on balance" a Remain vote.

The UUP also formed an opposition at Stormont last year, and just last month the parties were battling for votes in the assembly's snap election.

Asked how a pact could be achieved given these differences, Mr Nesbitt acknowledged any deal this time would be "more difficult".

"Last time there was no policy decision – it was an anti-absentionist arrangement," he said.

"This time it would be a more difficult thing to do because you would have to discuss some fundamental policies.

"There are always difficulties and the tight time frame doesn't give Robin the luxury that I had last time in being able to start negotiations months before an understanding was reached."

On whether he would consider running for a Westminster seat in June's election, Mr Nesbitt said: "I have given it no thought."

The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the prospect of an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists.

"We will be arranging to talk to the UUP very quickly, because we recognise that, if Northern Ireland is to maximise its representation and to have a strong voice in the absence of our own government, then we need to return MPs who will actually take their seats at Westminster," he told the BBC.

He suggested there should be a new unionist pact in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and "other constituencies as well".

The Lagan Valley MP highlighted South Belfast as one constituency where the unionists could gain a seat, which is currently held by the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell.

Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew held onto Fermanagh-South Tyrone in 2010 by just four votes before losing out to the UUP's Tom Elliott in 2015.

Mr Elliott yesterday said his party would have talks with the DUP in the "next few days".

Ulster Unionist MP Danny Kinahan criticised Sinn Féin's abstentionist policy at Westminster. He admitted he was "likely to have a battle with the DUP" to retain his South Antrim seat, and appeared to support a pre-election deal.

TUV also expressed support for a pact, saying the party has "always supported moves to maximise the number of unionists elected".

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