UUP MLA is 'open' to electoral pact talks

A UUP MLA has said he would be "open" to discussions on an agreed unionist candidate for the marginal Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency.

Tom Elliott was speaking after the DUP unveiled a campaign calling for one unionist representative to be on the ballot paper for next year's General Election.

The UUP man maintained the new electoral alliance his party has established with the Conservatives - who have stressed they would run candidates in all 18 Northern Ireland constituencies - should not "prohibit or preclude" talks with their main unionist rivals.

However, Mr Elliott stressed he could not see the "practical outworkings" of a single DUP candidate.

Speaking to the News Letter, the Fermanagh representative said: "The point I have made all along is that I have always been open to discussions but they can't be done through the public domain. If there is going to be any meaningful discussions, they need to be done with a degree of respect for everyone concerned."

Mr Elliott, who was selected as Westminster candidate for the constituency some months ago and is set to run against the DUP's Arlene Foster, added that any talks should take place at a senior level between the two parties.

"We can't agree something without party agreement."

When asked if the UUP could step aside as a result of such discussions, Mr Elliott replied: "I'm not ruling in or out anything. However, it would take a lot for Ulster Unionism to stand aside. I don't see the practical outworkings of it if the DUP think they are going to be a single candidate and win the seat, but all of that is a matter for discussion."

The UUP MLA, who stated he was "relatively supportive" of his party's link with the Tories, argued his party was better positioned to reclaim the seat held by Sinn Fein since 2001.

"Fermanagh and South Tyrone is such a marginal seat now and you are going to need someone who can maximise the vote. The chances of the DUP winning the seat are very minimal, in fact almost non-existent."

While admitting there was an appetite on the ground for a single candidate, Mr Elliott claimed deep divisions still remain from the 2001 poll, when the UUP narrowly lost the seat to sitting MP Michelle Gildernew.

"The seat was lost because of the DUP's insistence to support a candidate outside the mainstream. A lot of people still remember that and it remains a big issue," he said.

The DUP are issuing leaflets to every home in both the Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast constituencies, calling for combined unionist candidates.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: "The DUP has made it clear where we stand on the issue of unionist cooperation. We have offered the hand of friendship. The key issue is for Reg Empey and his boss (David Cameron) to decide how they react to growing unionist anger over their policy of handing seats to anti-unionists.

"The DUP stands ready and willing to do a deal."