Fermanagh unity talks despite Baxter withdrawal

PRIVATE talks between the Ulster Unionists and the DUP in Fermanagh are understood to be continuing, despite the UUP-Conservative alliance moving to finalise 17 of its 18 candidates within days.

It is understood that local engagement between the two parties has continued regardless of Tory insistence that the Conservatives and Unionists will run in every constituency across the Province.

Over the last year talks are believed to have explored the possibility of a "unity candidate" from outside the two main unionist parties, something which has also been called for by the TUV.

However, the main name associated with that possibility, former PSNI Det Supt Norman Baxter, has rejected the parties' overtures, the Ulster Unionists last night confirmed.

Mr Baxter declined to comment but a Fermanagh unionist source told the News Letter that the DUP and UUP were in unofficial contact with other individuals who may run if the other unionist parties were to stand aside.

The news will be met with unhappiness among local Conservatives who have long decried any pacts with the DUP or TUV, something many local Tories view as "sectarian".

In a statement yesterday the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Ulster Unionist Association said: "Following recent speculation that former RUC officer Norman Baxter may run as a Westminster candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Ulster Unionists in the constituency have said they are mindful of the need to have someone committed to the job and who can maximise the unionist vote."

However, in the statement the local UUP chairman, James Cooper, said that the agreed candidate should be local UUP Assemblyman Tom Elliott, despite local DUP MLA Arlene Foster attracting a substantially higher vote than Mr Elliott in the 2005 general election.

Mr Cooper's comments may be an indication that local rancour between the two camps is such that neither will compromise.

However, he did add: "We are also conscious that an acceptable single unionist candidate has the most realistic chance of winning the seat. Another split unionist vote is likely to gift the seat to Sinn Fein.

“We acknowledge recent speculation that Norman Baxter might be prepared to be a candidate for the UUP and Conservatives.

“However, a number of lengthy and detailed discussions with him by both the Conservatives and ourselves have concluded that he is not prepared to go forward.”

Local DUP Assemblyman Lord Morrow said that his party was “certainly interested in finding an agreed candidate” in the constituency.

He stressed that was despite his party being “the largest party by some 5,000 votes”.

“We are looking to find a person, perhaps not connected to either of the parties, that unionism can unite around.”

Meanwhile, the DUP has selected MLA Ian McCrea to challenge Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness in Mid Ulster at the general election.

Mr McCrea father, William McCrea, is a former MP for the area before moving to the more unionist South Antrim constituency,

The TUV have selected Newtownards councillor Terry Williams to challenge for Iris Robinson’s vacant Strangford seat, going up against Conservatives and Unionists’ candidate Mike Nesbitt and possibly the DUP’s Jim Shannon.