ARLENE Foster has been chosen as the DUP's candidate to contest the Fermanagh council by-election, the News Letter can reveal.
She was unanimously endorsed by DUP members at a meeting in Lisbellaw on Monday night.
The selection of such a senior party member – and currently the Economy Minister – signals the party's intention to fight to the bitter end to keep the seat in the Enniskillen ward, left empty following the death of Councillor Joe Dodds.
The DUP had sought a straightforward co-option of party member Thomas Hogg to the council, but were blocked by the Ulster Unionists and their group leader Bertie Kerr, who called for a by-election.
The move sparked furious exchanges between the two main unionist parties and opened up the prospect of the DUP losing another council by-election post power-sharing with Sinn Fein – following the Dromore by-election defeat in February.
With the combined unionist vote in the ward at the 2005 election being 49 per cent of the poll and nationalists taking 47 per cent, the seat is too close to call.
But at a selection meeting – addressed by DUP leader Peter Robinson – the party made it clear it was in no mood for another result like Dromore.
Mrs Foster said: "The passing of our dear friend Joe Dodds was a very sad time for people in Enniskillen. Joe was a dedicated public servant held in very high regard by all people throughout the district – unionist, nationalist and others.
"This by-election will be a fight to keep the seat held by Joe in unionist hands. It will be a hard fight and everyone knows that it will be a battle between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein as to who will take this seat."
Mrs Foster said people in the constituency "are rightly angered at the behaviour of Bertie Kerr in forcing this by-election in the first place".
She even said there are Ulster Unionists "deeply hurt" by Mr Kerr calling a by-election after Mr Dodds' death.
He was, she noted, "risking a seat falling to republicans that they otherwise would not be entitled to in a full election".
She continued: "His subsequent public utterances have compounded the anger and hurt out there in the community. I hope the UUP leadership will show in coming days that Bertie Kerr was acting on his own behalf and not at their behest.
"The DUP was the lead party in this area at the last election and only the DUP can stop Joe Dodds' seat from falling to a republican. My campaign will be about unionist unity – we must all come together to hold this seat.
"Over the coming weeks I am looking forward to getting out around the doors and encouraging unionist people, regardless of their party-political allegiances, to rally in the cause of keeping this seat in unionist hands."
The by-election is scheduled for mid-September.
The 2005 election result was: SF 2,486 votes (two seats), DUP 2,454 (two seats); UUP 1,785 (one seat) SDLP 1,584 (two seats, thanks to transfers); Socialist Party 406 votes.