Talks aimed at exploring the potential for unionist pacts in the June general election did not get off to the best of starts yesterday.
Leaders of the two main unionist parties – Arlene Foster and Robin Swann – met on Monday afternoon to discuss the issue of co-operation between the DUP and UUP at the polls.
But there was evidence of tensions between the two leaders before discussion even got underway, after DUP leader Mrs Foster ruled out her party standing aside in South Belfast.
While Mrs Foster pledged that her party would not go up against the UUP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, she also declared that only the DUP could win the seat in South Belfast.
Already the UUP has said it will not run in North Belfast, West Belfast and Foyle, a decision which was welcomed by Mrs Foster, who said: “It is beyond doubt that Nigel Dodds and Gavin Robinson are the standard-bearers for unionism in North and East Belfast respectively.
“Equally, there can be no argument that the DUP is not only the lead unionist party but the lead party in South Belfast. Sadly, in 2015, the UUP did not accept that reality but, given the results in 2016 and 2017, it cannot now be disputed.”
UUP leader Mr Swann said Mrs Foster’s comments, published in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, were both “arrogant and unhelpful” ahead of the talks.
Responding to those remarks on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster yesterday, Mr Swann said: “If Arlene is already ruling out seats and putting up red lines it’s going to make any conversation a bit more difficult.
“I had hoped to go into this as the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party with some sort of hope for unionism, some sort of hope of coming to an agreement, but I’m still open to have the conversation, I’m still happy to go to the meeting.
“Unionism suffered at the March election. I was hoping there could have been a way forward - I still hope there is. I’m willing to talk. That attitude isn’t helpful at this moment in time.”
Explaining his decision not to field candidates in three constituencies, Mr Swann said: “It’s not about giving anything to anybody else. Our executive met on Saturday and we decided we wouldn’t be running in three constituencies.
“What I would like to see in return is as many Ulster Unionists MPs as possible. We’re open to pacts, we’re going to do pacts. We’re willing to talk to people at this stage. I think that’s what we’ve made clear, as have a number of other parties across Northern Ireland.”
Meanwhile, Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw hit out at Mrs Foster’s comment’s [about the DUP being the only party that is capable of winning South Belfast], claiming the remarks showed “a singular mentality which would turn off many voters”.
She added: “Pacts are inherently anti-democratic, removing choice from people. Alliance believes the public should decide who represents them, not politicians. Pacts such as the one the DUP is proposing with the UUP do nothing but turn elections into sectarian headcounts.
“We are best placed to face up to the DUP in the constituency, giving people the choice they deserve in this election.”