DUP leader Peter Robinson defends the electoral pact

First Minister Peter Robinson (left) with Ulster Unionist Leader Mike Nesbitt: Paul Faith/PA Wire
First Minister Peter Robinson (left) with Ulster Unionist Leader Mike Nesbitt: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Unionists have rejected criticism of a Westminster electoral pact and denied it amounts to a “sectarian headcount”.

Political opponents have rounded on the DUP and Ulster Unionists since they announced their decision to field only one agree candidate in four key Westminster constituencies.

However, DUP leader Peter Robinson hit back at one of the most outspoken opponents of the pact, saying Naomi Long’s remarks were hypocritical given that Alliance withdrew a candidate in 2001 in similar circumstances.

At the time, Alliance urged the party’s supporters in North Down to vote for Ulster Unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon in an effort to unseat anti-agreement unionist Bob McCartney (UKUP).

Lady Hermon polled 56 per cent of the vote (20,833) and emerged with a 7,324 majority over Mr McCartney,

Mr Robinson said: “So its all right for them, perfectly democratic when they do it, but when anybody else does it it’s anti-democratic.”

The DUP leader acknowledged that some people in the four constituencies - East Belfast, North Belfast, Newry & Armagh and Fermanagh & South Tyrone - would be “disappointed” their preferred party would not be fielding candidates, but said the understanding was acceptable political strategy.

The unionist community “actually want unionists to be working together and to ensure that they have proper representation at Westminster,” he told the BBC.

Mr Robinson also said he did not believe that a unionist pact in the most closely contested constituency in the UK - Fermanagh and South Tyrone won by Sinn Fein in 2010 by just four votes - would lead to a surge in support for nationalist parties.

“We have had experience of pacts in the past and that isn’t the outcome,” he said.

DUP leader Peter Robinson

DUP leader Peter Robinson

Announcing the decision, Mr Robinson said: “I commend the constituency associations from both parties who have considered the bigger picture and accepted they should stand aside in the greater interests of unionism. Their sacrifice and efforts to strengthen unionism will undoubtedly be recognised in subsequent elections.”

Upper Bann DUP MP David Simpson said he welcomed the pact covering four constituencies, but expressed disappointment that no agreement was reached in other areas.

Mr Simpson said: “I am disappointed however that Upper Bann could not be included within this wider agreement. Sinn Fein has made no secret of their desire to take this seat and the figures from recent elections show that unionists cannot take this seat for granted.”

The NI Conservatives have branded the unionist pact a backward step.

The party’s Westminster candidate for East Belfast, Neil Wilson, said: “Sadly they’ve now slid backwards into the politics of tribal headcounts, by siding with the DUP. The pact seems to mark the end of the Ulster Unionists as an independent party and that will horrify many of their members and supporters.”

When contacted by the News Letter on Wednesday night, a TUV spokesman said the party would be making no comment at this stage.