Just over a week after giving a categorical pledge that the UUP would not stand aside for the DUP in any seat, incoming UUP leader Steve Aiken has U-turned after coming under intense pressure.
In a dramatic change of course which comes even before he has taken over the leadership – something which will not happen until Saturday – the former Royal Navy nuclear submarine commander yesterday said that his party will give Nigel Dodds a free run in North Belfast.
That came a day after the DUP, in what appeared to be a choreographed move, announced that it would not be standing in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and would instead be endorsing former UUP leader Tom Elliott’s bid for the seat – even though Mr Elliott has not confirmed that he will even be a candidate.
Last night the move towards limited unionist unity was welcomed by many – but not all – unionists and condemned by nationalists and the Alliance Party.
As revealed by the News Letter on Saturday, the U-turn came after threats – some emanating from a meeting involving South East Antrim UDA – to UUP staff and some potential candidates in North Belfast.
However, Mr Aiken did not say that he was standing aside for that reason.
On BBC programme The View last week, he said that the factor which had changed since his original decision to oppose a pact was that Sinn Fein had selected someone who would not take their seat in Westminster – despite the fact that abstentionism has been a policy of Sinn Fein’s for more than a century.
When interviewed by the News Letter 10 days ago, Mr Aiken was asked if the UUP would stand aside for the DUP in some seats. The South Antrim MLA bluntly and emphatically replied: “No. We’re not standing aside. We’re going to fight all 18 constituencies.”
Asked if he would regret his decision to run 18 candidates if it was to cost someone like Nigel Dodds his seat, Mr Aiken said: “Nigel Dodds and the DUP made it very clear, time and time again, that they don’t need Ulster Unionist support and we didn’t put a border down the Irish Sea; Nigel Dodds needs to answer that question.”
He went on to set out his reasoning for such a stance, arguing that the DUP had undermined the Union both through its involvement in various scandals and its handling of Brexit, and said that the UUP would offer an alternative of either a very soft Brexit or cancelling Brexit entirely, which he said would not be as damaging to the Union.
However, by yesterday Mr Aiken outlined a policy diametrically opposed to that which he had initially said he believed in.
In a statement, he referred to what he said was the DUP’s responsibility for the Brexit “debacle” which “cannot be whitewashed away”.
Denouncing the party for which he is urging north Belfast unionists to vote, he went on: “It was their acceptance of a regulatory border in the Irish Sea on October 2, vigorously opposed by the Ulster Unionist Party, which opened the floodgates for Boris Johnson and his dreadful deal.
“The Union itself is now in a precarious position not in spite of the DUP’s stance but because of the DUP’s actions.”
Mr Aiken said that he had been in discussions with “senior political and community figures across north Belfast” and had “listened respectfully to all views expressed, including deeply held concerns that they will be unrepresented in Westminster in the critical months ahead”.
He went on: “This has been done in the context of threats and intimidation against UUP staff and members. In a modern democracy no-one should have to face threats, intimidation or coercion of any sort because of their involvement in the democratic process.
“It is appalling and totally reprehensible and should have no place in Northern Ireland in the 21st century.”
He said it was “absolutely vital that MPs are returned who will take their seats and be able to influence the future direction of our nation” and “therefore we have decided not to nominate a candidate in North Belfast in the forthcoming election.
“The DUP recognise that they cannot win North Belfast on their own, despite having dismissed the opinions of other unionists in the past. They cannot expect to continue on that basis and must now realise they need Ulster Unionist voices at Westminster.
“The choice in North Belfast is between Nigel Dodds as MP or an abstentionist MP who refuses to stand in Westminster to talk about health, education, justice, international affairs, or the future direction of the United Kingdom.
“In the face of Boris Johnson’s terrible deal which forces Northern Ireland towards the edge of the Union, we cannot gift a seat to Sinn Fein who support this direction either in North Belfast or Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
“It is better to elect Nigel Dodds in North Belfast and hold him to account for his promises on the Union than facilitate the election of an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP who still cannot condemn IRA violence.”
On Saturday, DUP leader Arlene Foster announced that the DUP would not stand against Tom Elliott in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, saying that voters “deserve to be represented in the House of Commons rather than an absentee MP standing on the sidelines”.
Howver, Mr Elliott told the Press Association that he was not prepared to confirm if he plans to run as a candidate ahead of a selection meeting on Thursday.
DUP leader Arlene Foster – who Steve Aiken has derided as “two borders Foster” – was quick to endorse the UUP decision.
The former first minister said: “We welcome the fact that the Ulster Unionists have reached this decision.
“They know that they cannot win in North Belfast and that first class representation is already provided by Nigel Dodds. I have a strong sense that unionism across Northern Ireland wants to see unionist parties working together for the Union.”
Alliance, which over recent years has continued to stand candidates in areas where it faced physical attacks, including a constituency office which was torched, said that “paramilitaries cannot be allowed to win”.
The party’s North Belfast candidate, Nuala McAllister, said: “This backtracking by Steve Aiken is not only him caving in but also effectively bowing the knee to the DUP before he has even taken the reins of the UUP. He made a big play about running candidates in every constituency but has now lost any credibility he had.”
Sinn Fein’s North Belfast candidate, John Finucane, has appealed to unionists opposed to Brexit to vote for him, saying that unionists who oppose leaving the EU “are not represented by Nigel Dodds, one of the chief architects of the Tory Brexit”.
He said: “With the UUP withdrawing from this contest under pressure from loyalist paramilitaries, there is now no unionist candidate representing those who voted to remain in Europe.”
The TUV had called for unionist unity in seats where Sinn Fein could otherwise benefit, saying that it would be “folly to gift seats to Sinn Fein” and that “any party that sets such a course is not serving the Union”.
The PUP leader Billy Hutchinson had also called for a single unionist candidate.
Just hours before Mr Aiken reversed his policy, former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt had warned that it would be “nothing short of hypocrisy” for his party to sign up to an electoral pact with the DUP.
Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast, the Strangford MLA said that the election was a chance for unionists to voice anger at the DUP’s behaviour.
He said: “Since the last election, the DUP have been embroiled in a sort of alphabet soup of scandals – both corporately with the likes of RHI and individually with Ian Paisley Jr.
“And also their stance on Brexit, I think, is an existential threat to the future of the United Kingdom.
“So it is very difficult to be making those sort of criticisms of a party and then to go into the ballot box on the 12th of December coming and give them one of their preferences. That is nothing short in my analysis of hypocrisy.”
He said the pressure coming from the DUP was “frankly undemocratic”.
He added: “I mean, they are criticising us for saying we want to run candidates in a political election. If it is a democracy, we are entitled to run in all 18 constituencies.”