Catholic from west Belfast could be unionist candidate

A CATHOLIC from west Belfast, poised to represent the Ulster Unionist and Conservative Party, has said he is so confident the electoral alliance between the two parties will take the South Belfast seat at Westminster next year he is placing a £50 bet on it.

Former BBC producer Peter McCann, 43, who started his career at the News Letter, grew up playing gaelic football and watched Bobby Sands' funeral cortege pass his home in 1981.

Mr McCann, a member of the Conservative Party, spoke of his confidence despite a row breaking out within the UUP, where some South Belfast members are calling for a deal with the DUP to ensure just one unionist runs in the constituency.

A leaked internal letter from the local Ulster Unionist Association calls on leader Sir Reg Empey to do a deal with the DUP for an agreed candidate.

It is understood to have been penned at a meeting last week after members resolved that only an agreed unionist candidate could wrest the seat from sitting SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell.

Sir Reg said that he had not received any letter and so could not comment on its contents.

Mr McDonnell unexpectedly took the seat from the UUP in 2005 with 10,339 votes, ahead of the DUP's Jimmy Spratt with 9,104 votes and UUP candidate Michael McGimpsey who trailed in third with 7,263 votes.

The sitting MP described the row as "simply a distraction" which he said did not concern him.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said his party were willing to do a deal over an agreed candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone as well as South Belfast even though Stormont Enterprise, Trade and Investment minister Arlene Foster has already been declared as the Fermanagh DUP candidate.

Mr McCann was selected by the Conservatives last Friday night but will still have to be agreed by the UUP to run.

Both the UUP and the Conservative associations in each constituency select a candidate who they each put forward to a central joint selection committee and the final choice must be approved by both Sir Reg and David Cameron.

The UUP have not yet begun their selection process but Health Minister Michael McGimpsey and community worker Paula Bradshaw are believed to be interested.

Mr McCann said regardless of whether or not the DUP runs he believes the Conservatives and Unionists will take the seat.

"If I am blessed enough to be selected as the Conservative and Unionist candidate it would be a privilege," he said.

"We are going to win the seat anyway, I am putting a 50 bet on the Conservative and Unionist candidate winning, that is how confident I am, when I collect my winnings, which will be sizeable, I will split them between Women's Aid and the National Autistic Society."

After working at the News Letter, Mr McCann held senior positions on the BBC's Watchdog and Top Gear programmes.

South Belfast Alliance MLA, Anna Lo said that the row over selection proved that the UUP and Conservatives "remain mired in the old politics of sectarian headcounts".