Leading UUP representatives in east Belfast have strongly rejected criticism from sitting MP Naomi Long of their party’s decision to enter an electoral pact with the DUP.
On Tuesday the DUP and UUP revealed that they would only field former DUP Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson as their joint candidate for the constituency in the general election – a bid to win the seat back from Alliance.
In a joint statement, Alderman Jim Rodgers and Councillor Sonia Copeland said: “We can assure Naomi that the Ulster Unionist Party is alive and well and growing in East Belfast. On this one occasion, in a first past the post Westminster poll, we have chosen not to contest the election, but we will be back, and fighting strongly to increase our Assembly representation in East Belfast next year. You only need to look at the local government results 10 months ago, when we topped the polls in Titanic and Ormiston, to see which way the tide is turning in the East.
“Alliance cannot pretend to be liberal unionists anymore; they are completely neutral and at times openly hostile to the maintenance of the Union. The Ulster Unionist Party looks forward with confidence to contesting East Belfast at the Assembly election in 2016.”
On Tuesday Ms Long said that “many UUP voters were already disillusioned by the party’s involvement in whipping up sectarian tensions around flags and parades and this decision will only serve to further alienate them”.
She added: “This decision has sounded the death knell for the UUP in East Belfast, who have abandoned their voters without gaining any truly winnable seats in return. It has also confirmed what has long been the case – if you vote UUP in East Belfast, you get the DUP.
“People already viewed the seat as a two-horse race so this changes nothing electorally, other than delivering a calculated insult to UUP voters and to the East Belfast electorate as a whole, by admitting the party is struggling.
“The people I represent deserve not to have their vote taken for granted, but rather earned through engagement, commitment to work and a track record. The DUP-UUP clearly do not trust the people of East Belfast to exercise real choice.
“My vision is a more constructive form of unity – building a united community for all people of East Belfast, not a carve-up. Rather than denying people a choice, I offer them a real one: back to sectarian head counts and the politics of fear and division, or forward to inclusive and progressive politics and a shared future.”