Eight Ulster Unionist candidates have come out to say that they will transfer to unionists before the SDLP, in the wake of groundbreaking comments by their leader.
On Sunday, Mike Nesbitt said that he would be voting for the UUP candidate in East Belfast, where he lives, and then immediately transferring to the SDLP – ahead of pro-Union DUP, TUV, Conservative and PUP candidates.
He did not urge voters to either follow his stance or to transfer to other unionists but instead said that each voter should decide who to support.
That hugely significant statement by an Ulster Unionist leader has caused deep alarm among some senior UUP figures, although none of them have openly challenged Mr Nesbitt’s comment.
However, eight UUP candidates – Danny Kennedy, Rosemary Barton, Robert Foster, Alicia Clarke, Robbie Butler, Andy Allen, Sandra Overend and Harold McKee – advocated varying stances all of which incorporated transferring to unionists before the SDLP.
On Sunday night, former Ulster Unionist minister Mr Kennedy, the party’s candidate in Newry and Armagh, issued a statement saying that he “would be advising his supporters to give their second preference vote to the only other unionist candidate standing in the constituency of Newry & Armagh (the DUP’s William Irwin).”
Mr Kennedy said he believed it was “important to protect the two pro-Union seats in the constituency”.
Yesterday morning Mr Nesbitt – who will today launch his party’s manifesto – stood over his comments and said that he had discussed Mr Kennedy’s statement with him before it was released. He said that he was comfortable with his party colleague’s stance.
West Tyrone candidate Alicia Clarke said: “I am advising voters to give their second preference vote as their own conscience dictates. Personally, I will be transferring to pro-Union candidates, followed by the SDLP.”
North Belfast candidate Robert Foster said: “I have already made public my intention on giving Julie-Anne Corr Johnston (PUP) my second preference vote in North Belfast. Julie-Anne is a hard working councillor who, like myself, wants to see North Belfast receive the opportunities that DUP/SF leadership has refused to deliver for the last decade.
“I will then be transferring my vote to candidates I believe will support North Belfast, Northern Ireland and our place within the UK. I am fully committed to the preservation of the Union, as is my party.”
South Down candidate Harold McKee said: “I am advising my supporters to transfer to other pro-union candidates. This is vital in order to protect the two existing unionist seats in the constituency.”
Fermanagh and South Tyrone candidate Rosemary Barton said: “The Ulster Unionist Party in Fermanagh & South Tyrone has always recommended to give further vote preferences to other pro-Union candidates. This election is no different. We recommend to vote in that way after giving 1 to Rosemary Barton”.
East Belfast candidate Andy Allen, who lives in North Belfast, said: “I will be voting for Robert Foster then transferring to Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston as both work tirelessly to deliver for the people.”
Mid Ulster candidate Sandra Overend said: “I will certainly be transferring my vote to other pro-union candidates to block Sinn Fein”.
And Lagan Valley candidate Robbie Butler outlined five tests which he said voters should use when deciding who to vote for, including the honesty of the candidate, their integrity and their stance on “moral issues”.
He said “as a proud and constructive Unionist I would certainly hope that, if you apply the criteria above against all the candidates in your area, unionist candidates from whichever party measure favourably and meet most, if not all, the tests”.
However, he went on to say: “I am a firm believer in quid pro quo and having demonstrated my honour in making my commitment I offer a challenge to [the DUP] candidates to be equally forthright.”
He asked DUP candidates to “consider issuing their own personal statements on all or any of the following issues that the electorate are interested in, as follows: 1) RHI - remember I was on the PAC; 2) Red Sky; 3) Nama; 4) Dee Stitt; 5) Jenny Palmer.
“I don’t think this is unfair seeing as some people think the most important issue today is advising people on how to vote.”
Meanwhile, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said that the SDLP “has not been historically in the business of advocating formal transfer pacts and we will not be advocating such a pact in this election”.
However, writing on the website Eamonnmallie.com, Mr Eastwood did explicitly endorse cross-communal voting patterns, code for nationalists transferring to unionist candidates.
He said: “No-one is in any doubt as to the huge task before us. Achieving an alternative government in Northern Ireland will require many votes for change – including votes which transfer across the traditional divide in the North.”
He went on: “Therefore in this election, the SDLP is asking voters to vote for change and we are also asking them to transfer for change.
“That means voting down the ticket and it does mean voting cross-community.
I know and understand that, given all the history and hurt between our two peoples, this will not be easy for many. This will not be helped by the inevitable roll out of the old Project Fear tactics which the DUP and Sinn Féin will attempt to play out for mutual benefit.
“But achieving change is rarely easy and is not comfortable.”