UUP pull out of North Belfast, as unionist pact to go ahead in Fermanagh South Tyrone
THE Ulster Unionist Party has announced it will step aside in North Belfast to allow sitting DUP MP Nigel Dodds a clear run in the forthcoming election.
The incumbent is expected to face a close contest with Sinn Féin lord mayor John Finucane, with the seat singled out by the republican party as one of its key targets as it aims to increase its number of MPs from seven to eight.
The DUP deputy leader has a majority of just over 2,000 votes.
Their unionist rivals have been under pressure to pull out of North Belfast after incoming UUP leader Steve Aiken indicated he planned to stand candidates across Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies
It emerged at the weekend that police are investigating threats made against UUP staff members over the row.
In a statement on Sunday, Mr Aiken said he believes it is better to elect Mr Dodds than "facilitate the election of an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP".
He said the decision came after discussions with senior political and community figures across north Belfast.
"We listened respectfully to all views expressed, including deeply-held concerns that they will be unrepresented in Westminster in the critical months ahead," he said.
"The choice in North Belfast is between Nigel Dodds as MP or an abstentionist MP who refuses to stand in Westminster to talk about health, education, justice, international affairs or the future direction of the United Kingdom.
"In the face of Boris Johnson's terrible deal which forces Northern Ireland towards the edge of the Union, we cannot gift a seat to Sinn Fein who support this direction either in North Belfast or Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
"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 Fein MP who still cannot condemn IRA violence.
"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 condemned the intimidation of party members.
"It is appalling and totally reprehensible and should have no place in Northern Ireland in the 21st century."
DUP leader Arlene Foster welcomed the decision and said her party would back Tom Elliott as the agreed unionist candidate in the Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency.
A previous unionist pact saw Mr Elliott win theWestminster seat in 2015, but Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew regained the seat two years later.
Mr Elliott told the PA news agency that he is not prepared to confirm if he plans to run as a candidate ahead of a selection meeting on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Alliance leader Naomi Long has confirmed she will stand for the party in East Belfast - a seat she held from 2010 - 2015.
She is currently one of Northern Ireland's three MEPs
Mrs Long said Alliance would be running on a platform of "ending the Brexit chaos and protecting Northern Ireland from any catastrophic no deal".
"Following Alliance's successes in May’s elections, we are uniquely placed as the largest, most inclusive pro-Remain party that will go to Parliament and fight against the Brexit shambles which we have been subjected to over the past three years."