Alliance play down South Belfast Westminster pact as Sinn Féin prepares to select candidate
SINN Féin has said nominations for its South Belfast Westminster candidate will open this week, fuelling speculation about whether former Stormont finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir will contest the seat.
The announcement comes as Alliance leader Naomi Long effectively ruled her party out of joining any pact to maximise the pro-Remain vote in Belfast.
There has been speculation in recent weeks that a pro-Remain pact involving Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens would mount a serious challenge to the DUP's three pro-Brexit MPs in the city.
It has been suggested that Sinn Féin, Alliance and the Greens could step aside in South Belfast, leaving the SDLP's Claire Hanna as the sole pro-Remain candidate challenging Emma Little-Pengelly.
In a trade-off, Sinn Féin lord mayor John Finucane would be given a free run against Nigel Dodds in North Belfast, while Alliance's candidate in DUP-held East Belfast would be unchallenged by other pro-Remain candidates.
Last night, Ms Hanna told The Irish News she remained open to a potential pact.
"Across the constituency I'm sensing a real desire to ensure the Remain vote doesn't shred, so I'm open to any proposal that will see a robust, anti-Brexit MP at Westminster," she said.
The South Belfast MLA said she believed she was "best equipped" to oust the sitting DUP MP, who won the seat in 2017 with a majority of 1,996 ahead of former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell.
"This election is going to be about Brexit and I think I have proven credentials in that regard," she said.
Alliance has selected South Belfast MLA Paula Bradshaw as its candidate in the constituency and all indications suggest the party will not be standing aside for another pro-Remain candidate.
Party leader Naomi Long told The Irish News: "It is current party policy that we don't enter into electoral pacts.
"So far, no requests have been received by party council for any change to be considered."
A party source said the leader's stance was reflective of party members, who were generally opposed to electoral pacts.
It remains unclear whether Mr Ó Muilleoir, Sinn Féin's candidate in the past two Westminster elections, will contest the South Belfast seat this time around.
Rumours about the former finance minister's possible departure from politics have been circulating in recent weeks, although he has so far not responded to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that the SDLP is considering looking outside the party's current elected representatives for a candidate to contest South Down.
The party is understood to have made approaches to at least one individual with no first-hand experience of electoral politics about the possibility of challenging Sinn Féin's Chris Hazzard.
The SDLP had held South Down for 30 years but former party leader Margaret Ritchie lost out to Mr Hazzard in 2017.