Arlene Foster will not put herself forward as a candidate in the forthcoming general election despite speculation she could replace David Simpson in Upper Bann, the News Letter understands.
Sitting MP Mr Simpson announced on Wednesday that he would not contest next month’s election and apologised for an extra marital affair.
Mr Simpson, who held the Upper Bann seat for 14 years, was praised by party leader Mrs Foster for “his many years of consistent service to the people of Upper Bann and to his party”.
There was speculation on Wednesday that Mrs Foster might contest the election herself while MEP Diane Dodds was also linked.
However, a DUP source told the News Letter last night that “Arlene remains focussed on the Assembly” and is highly unlikely to stand in the Westminster election next month.
In September, before the snap election was called, Mrs Foster had already appeared to rule herself out of any candidacy for a seat in the House of Commons.
“My focus is very much on the return of devolution and the return of Stormont, that’s what I am focused on,” she said.
Another senior source told the News Letter last night that Mrs Foster will likely spend Thursday evening in the Upper Bann constituency, speaking with the local DUP association about candidates to replace Mr Simpson.
The party is expected to announce a candidate in the coming days.
“Given the timetable, we do not want a lengthy selection process so it will be sooner rather than later,” a DUP source said.
An official party spokesperson said: “Party processes are now in place to choose a new candidate and an announcement will be made in due course.”
One politician who is highly tipped as a possible candidate is the DUP MLA Carla Lockhart, who topped the poll in the last two Assembly elections.
But another potential candidate could be Mrs Dodds, a popular figure in the party who could soon find herself out of a job as MEP upon the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
While Mrs Dodds’ last elected office before entering the European Parliament was as DUP group leader on Belfast City Council, she is local to the Upper Bann area and has lived in Banbridge for a number of years.
However, there was no official comment from any of the potential candidates last night about whether they would put themselves forward.
Another DUP MLA for Upper Bann, Jonathan Buckley, said there would be an internal party process in the next few days but didn’t rule himself out of the race.
“I have always been passionate about Upper Bann,” Mr Buckley said.
“I have been born and bred here and it is now up to the party to decide who to put forward.”
Mrs Foster, meanwhile, paid tribute to Mr Simpson.
“His service has been characterised by dedication to the people who elected him and his business skills and experience were used to the benefit of Upper Bann,” she said.
“I wish him well as he takes a new direction in life and I know that he will continue to use his many talents to the benefit of the party and the wider Northern Ireland cause.”
Mr Simpson, announcing his decision not to contest the seat again, said he was “truly sorry” for “failings” in his personal life.
“It has been the privilege of my life, and deeply humbling to represent the people of Upper Bann in the House of Commons for the last fourteen years,” the outgoing MP said.
“In recent times it has been well publicised that I made a mistake that brought hurt to my wife and family as well as bringing heartache to another family.
“These were my mistakes and for them I am truly sorry. I have learned from my failings and my wife and children have given me a precious second chance and together we intend to look to the future together.”
He continued: “Many friends and colleagues have encouraged me to again contest this election but having served the people of Upper Bann for over fourteen years, I have decided not to do so and that this is the right time to pass the baton on.”
Mr Simpson added: “I look forward to helping and supporting the party in other facets in the future.”