TUV leader Jim Allister rubbishes speculation linking him to East Belfast election contest as Naomi Long lines up against Gavin Robinson

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​TUV leader Jim Allister has dismissed as "nonsense" speculation that he might switch constituencies to challenge the interim leader of the DUP in East Belfast.

The North Antrim MLA said while his party would be running in Gavin Robinson's Belfast constituency, he said there had never been any consideration that he might be the candidate.

His comments came after Alliance Party leader and Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long confirmed she would run against Mr Robinson in East Belfast.

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Ms Long was formerly the MP for the area between 2010 and 2015 but has lost the last three general election polls to Mr Robinson.

TUV leader Jim AllisterTUV leader Jim Allister
TUV leader Jim Allister

However, the race is tipped to be a close one on July 4, with the prospect of the TUV securing votes from disaffected DUP supporters unhappy with the deal the party struck with the UK Government on post-Brexit Irish Sea trade barriers that facilitated the return of Stormont earlier this year.

Mr Robinson assumed the leadership of the DUP on an interim basis in March after the shock resignation of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson following his arrest and charge on historical sex offence allegations - charges he denies.

On Monday, Mr Allister dismissed any notion he would be his party's candidate in East Belfast.

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"I really am astounded by the ignorance of those who put themselves forward as political commentators to make such a suggestion," he told BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show.

"It has never been in my mind to run in East Belfast."

He added: "It really is a poor reflection on the state of political commentary in Northern Ireland if such a rogue and nonsense suggestion would even be ventilated."

At the last general election in 2019, Ms Long was just under 2,000 votes behind Mr Robinson.

The current Stormont Justice Minister described the July 4 poll as an opportunity for her party to return a number of MPs.

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She plans to remain in post as minister during the election campaign, insisting it will not distract her from her ministerial duties.

Her approach is different to that taken by UUP Health Minister Robin Swann, who is stepping down as minister to focus on his bid to win a Westminster seat in South Antrim.

Alliance is hoping its sole current MP, Stephen Farry, will be able to defend his North Down seat, and the party is also aiming for gains in other constituencies, including Lagan Valley, where former DUP leader and outgoing MP Donaldson has been the long standing Westminster representative.

DUP Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley is running as the party's candidate in Lagan Valley.

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Ms Long said: "Both in East Belfast, and across Northern Ireland, we have an opportunity to choose a brighter, more positive politics, focused on growing a dynamic, sustainable economy, delivering fair funding for public services through the block grant, and ending political instability by reforming our institutions to remove vetoes."

On Monday, Mr Allister also reiterated his willingness for the TUV to step aside in the Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency to facilitate a non-party unionist candidate running in an effort to take the seat from Sinn Fein.

DUP interim leader Mr Robinson has also backed this approach in the UK's most westerly constituency.

"We believe in co-operation across the unionist family and maximising the pro-union vote," Mr Robinson said on Sunday.

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"We've been speaking to all shades of unionism about more than one seat.

"The DUP would step aside in Fermanagh and South Tyrone if there was a non-party pro-union candidate."

However, Mr Allister said the strategy would only work if the UUP also stood aside in favour of a non-party unionist.

"Fermanagh and South Tyrone has a particularly unique history in terms of a single candidate and the suggestion that a non-party unionist could bind together all unionist voters is a good idea and it's one that I am prepared to endorse," he said.

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"But it's one which can only fly if all unionist parties endorse it."

UUP leader Doug Beattie has insisted he does not favour pacts and on Sunday he highlighted that a candidate from his party was fewer than 60 votes short of winning the seat in the last election.

The UUP candidate for Fermanagh-South Tyrone is set to be local councillor Diana Armstrong.

Mr Beattie told the PA news agency on Sunday: "The UUP came within 57 votes of beating Sinn Fein at the last Westminster election and therefore represent the best chance of returning an MP who will show up and represent constituents."