DUP finalising Stormont election candidates as party earmarks February 26 for first conference since 2019
THE DUP is understood to be finalising a list of assembly election candidates ahead of its first party conference since 2019.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's first conference as leader is scheduled to take place on Saturday February 26 at the Crowne Plaza in south Belfast, the venue that saw dramatic public disagreement between DUP members as party officials sought to ratify Edwin Poots' leadership victory.
It will also be deputy leader Paula Bradley first conference in the role she assumed last year under Mr Poots' short-lived leadership.
When the party candidate list is revealed in the coming days all eyes will be on Sir Jeffrey, who indicated last year that he would like to run in Lagan Valley, where his predecessor Mr Poots and First Minister Paul Givan are the sitting MLAs.
His transition from MP to MLA suffered a setback last week with the British government's eleventh hour withdrawal of plans to reintroduce double jobbing.
Mr Poots said earlier this week that the DUP plans to run three candidates in Lagan Valley.
Despite opinion polls indicating a drop in support for the DUP, the agriculture minister appeared confident that his party could reverse a 400-plus first preference vote deficit in Lagan Valley and have three MLAs elected.
"We were 400 votes off winning three seats the last time, and had it not been for Mike Nesbitt’s call out for Ulster Unionists to vote for the SDLP we almost certainly would have the last seat the last time, so we’ll see how that goes,” Mr Poots told the BBC.
“But politics is an up and down business – it’s a risky business in many respects."
Commentators have suggested Mr Poots would be the most vulnerable of the three DUP candidates in Lagan Valley.
In December, University of Liverpool's Professor Jon Tonge said the DUP securing three seats in the constituency would "demand massive voter discipline, alongside generosity from the Ulster Unionist voters".
“Jeffrey Donaldson is the big name here and in this constituency he’ll certainly get votes from the UUP but they won’t transfer,” he told The Irish News.
“There is always a possibility of the DUP pulling off a miracle but if they run three candidates, I think Edwin Poots looks vulnerable.”
Meanwhile, both the SDLP and Alliance have announced their conference plans, their first since the pandemic took hold in March 2020.
The SDLP will hold its conference at the Seamus Heaney Homestead in Bellaghy, Co Derry on Sunday February 20, while Alliance has scheduled its conference for Saturday March 5 at the Crowne Plaza in south Belfast.