UUP leader Robin Swann says he is “open” to talks with the DUP about electoral cooperation to maximise the unionist vote.
The News Letter contacted Mr Swann for comment on the matter after a call for unionist pacts in the general election by Orange Order Grand Secretary, Rev Mervyn Gibson.
Mr Swann said his party’s aim was to get 18 MPs from Northern Ireland sitting in Westminster “arguing the case for Northern Ireland”.
He had heard calls in the media for unionist electoral cooperation, he said, but nobody from the DUP had yet contacted him about the matter.
He added: “I am prepared to talk to anyone in the interests of unionism and in the interests of Northern Ireland farming and business at Westminster.”
The news appears to signal a possible thawing in relations between the two largest unionist parties in the wake of an acrimonious Assembly election which saw both parties bruised by a strong Sinn Fein turnout.
The republican party came within one seat of matching the DUP in the Assembly and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt resigned after several of his party colleagues lost their seats.
In the run up to the election Mr Nesbitt caused controversy within his own party by calling on UUP voters to also support SDLP candidates. His call was openly opposed by a number of his party colleagues, including Newry and Armagh MLA Danny Kennedy, who was one of those to lose his seat.
Mr Nesbitt was replaced unopposed as party leader by North Antrim MLA Mr Swann, but the new chief quickly appeared to pour cold water on public discussions about closer unionist unity.
In his speech to the UUP AGM earlier this month, he had said: “A single unionist party would limit choice, stifle debate and quickly result in the depletion of unionist votes at the ballot box.
“I am in the Ulster Unionist Party – we are in the Ulster Unionist Party – because we believe in its vision, its policies and its priorities.”
He added: “It would also run the risk of driving those who consider themselves unionists, but only with a small U, into the arms of a party which is at best agnostic to the Union, and it would leave many others with no-one to vote for at all.”