Northern Ireland

Doug Beattie questions whether agreed unionist candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone can deliver ‘unified message’

UUP leader leaves door open for his party’s candidate to stand on unionist unity ticket

Ulster Unionist Fermanagh-South Tyrone candidate Diana Armstrong

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie has said an agreed unionist candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone “would not be able to deliver a unified message”.

But the Upper Bann MLA appears to be leaving the option open for the UUP’s Diana Armstrong to be the agreed unionist candidate in the constituency.

Ms Armstrong, the daughter of former UUP leader Harry West, was selected in January as her party’s candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

The DUP and TUV, who both stood aside in 2019 to give Ulster Unionist representative Tom Elliott a free run, have yet to say who’s contesting the seat on their behalf.

DUP leader Gavin Robinson, whose party have not stood in the constituency since 2005, said he had been “inundated” with “from across Fermanagh-South Tyrone calling for a non-party aligned pro-union candidate”.

Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, who holds the seat with a slender majority of 57, has signaled that she won’t be standing regardless of whether she is successful in the European elections, where the former Stormont agriculture minister is one of her party’s two candidates in the Midlands and North West constituency.

 Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew
Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew celebrates victory in the 2019 election with her party's deputy leader Michelle O'Neill

The DUP leader said on Sunday that his party would be “willing to stand aside” in Fermanagh and South Tyrone for a non-party pro-union candidate.

TUV leader Jim Allister had earlier said he would back a non-party candidate who could embrace the support of all unionists.

The DUP and the TUV have said they will not run candidates in North Down where independent unionist Alex Easton is challenging sitting Alliance MP Stephen Farry and UUP candidate Tim Collins.

Mr Robinson said his party “believe in cooperation across the unionist family and maximising the pro-union vote”.

“We’ve been speaking to all shades of unionism about more than one seat,” he said.

“The DUP would step aside in Fermanagh-South Tyrone if there was a non-party pro-union candidate.”

Mr Beattie said his party had a candidate in place since January because it had been speculated that the election would take place earlier.

“There were no conversations around a unity candidate and that remained the case until Friday May 24 when a proposed unity candidate was put forward by phone call,” he said.

“This was without any detail on how they would breach the differences between the parties.”

The Ulster Unionist leader question whether the proposed unionist unity candidate would back his party and the DUP’s position for entering the Stormont executive, and if so, would they therefore be supported by the TUV, which is opposed to ‘Safeguarding the Union’ command paper.

“If they did the UUP wouldn’t support. Would they refer to the DUP as protocol implementors? If they did the DUP wouldn’t support,” Mr Beattie said.

He said the a unionist unity candidate would be “undermined with just a basic level of scrutiny” and would not be able to deliver a unified message.

“Announcing our candidate early, ensuring she is known and is making headway in delivering a pro-union message gives many unionists the opportunity to affect change in Fermanagh and South Tyrone,” he said.

“We have not asked any party to stand aside in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, they have the right to stand if they wish, however, Diana Armstrong is the only realistic opportunity for a unionist to win in that constituency.”

Mr Robinson said on Monday that discussions about an agreed unionist candidate had taken place last year.

“The people of Fermanagh-South Tyrone should know who was interested in returning a pro-union voice to Westminster and those advancing selfish party interests, especially if there is a hung parliament and Fermanagh-South Tyrone are once again left voiceless,” the East Belfast MP said.