Two potential Ulster Unionist candidates in North Belfast have ruled themselves out as the party’s incoming leader comes under pressure from other quarters not to stand in the constituency.
Last weekend, Steve Aiken – who will take over as UUP leader next week without a contest – told the News Letter that his party would not stand aside in any constituency and would field 18 candidates across Northern Ireland in next month’s general election.
He argued that the DUP was a threat to the Union, having agreed to a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, having pushed for Brexit and having presided over shambolic governance at Stormont.
Mr Aiken appeared to retreat from his pledge last night on BBC The View, when he said that his party wanted to stand across Northern Ireland, but he repeatedly failed to clarify under questioning whether that meant all 18 seats.
His interview in this paper prompted a robust response from DUP leader Arlene Foster who said that the former Royal Navy nuclear submarine commander was endangering unionist seats, including that of her deputy leader, North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds.
She appealed for Mr Aiken to think again, warning that what he was doing would “hand seats to Sinn Fein”.
One issue for Mr Aiken will be finding a candidate willing to stand. The party has shrunken considerably in North Belfast over the last decade. Robert Foster, an Antrim and Newtownabbey councillor, was the UUP candidate in the 2017 assembly election, the last time the party contested North Belfast in an election.
Last night he told the News Letter he had no ambition to be candidate this time, citing his business and council work.
Another potential candidate, Mark Cosgrove, the UUP’s treasurer and the party’s group leader on Antrim and Newtownabbey Council, said that due to business commitments and his council work he did not want to be a full-time politician.
Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph published a letter signed by 25 north Belfast unionists who called on Mr Aiken not to contest the constituency.
One of those who signed the letter, Dean McCullough, was described as chair of Rathcoole Neighbourhood Renewal. It did not mention that Mr McCullough is also a DUP councillor, and therefore might be expected to endorse the party policy of allowing Mr Dodds a free run.
When asked about that, Mr McCullough told the News Letter that his DUP political role was not mentioned in the letter because he had signed it in his community capacity.
The letter was signed by other unionists from various backgrounds, including PUP leader Billy Hutchinson and Belfast County Grand Master of the Orange Order, Spencer Beattie.
It was also signed by a sitting UUP councillor, Frazer Agnew, and someone who was a UUP councillor until May, Davy Browne.
The letter set out “strong opposition” to the policy espoused by Mr Aiken, arguing that the “only consequence” of challenging Mr Dodds would be to help Sinn Fein.
The letter, which was restrained in tone, said: “The North Belfast seat holds a special place in the heart of the unionist community across Northern Ireland. The seat once held by Edward Carson, since its creation, North Belfast has always returned a unionist Member of Parliament.
“For decades the unionist community in North Belfast faced the brunt of the sectarian murder campaign of the IRA. It was the collective unwavering resolve and unity of purpose amongst our community that gave us the strength to carry on. It is that sense of unity and standing together that continues to define the unionist community in North Belfast to this day.
“Whilst we the undersigned come from different political viewpoints, as unionists, we are all united in our desire to ensure North Belfast returns a unionist Member of Parliament.”
It went on: “Nigel Dodds has been the collective choice of our united unionist community in North Belfast.
“The only consequence of running a candidate against Nigel will be to help Sinn Fein. Only Nigel can retain this seat.”
When asked for Mr Aiken’s response to the letter, the UUP responded with a brief statement from a party spokesman.
The statement did not state unambiguously – as Mr Aiken did earlier this week – that the party will unquestionably be standing in North Belfast.
Instead, it simply said: “The letter has been received and we are listening respectfully to all views in the community.”
The last time the UUP stood in North Belfast constituency was the 2017 assembly election the party took 2,418 votes.
In the 2017 general election, even with the UUP standing aside, Sinn Fein was just 2,081 votes behind Mr Dodds.
l Morning View, page 16