The Ulster Unionist Party will step aside in North Belfast to allow Democratic Unionist deputy leader Nigel Dodds a clear run, it has been announced.
Incoming UUP leader Steve Aiken had been under pressure not to run a candidate in North Belfast, where Mr Dodds is expected to face a close contest with Sinn Féin’s John Finucane.
Sinn Féin last week singled out Mr Dodds, who won a majority of just over 2,000 votes in North Belfast in 2017, as one of its key targets as it aims to increase its number of MPs from seven to eight.
In a statement today, Mr Aiken said he believes it is better to elect Mr Dodds than “facilitate the election of an abstentionist Sinn Féin MP”.
Mr Aiken had previously indicated the UUP would stand candidates across Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies.
He said the party has since been in discussions with senior political and community figures across North Belfast.
“In doing so, we listened respectfully to all views expressed, including deeply-held concerns that they will be unrepresented in Westminster in the critical months ahead,” he said.
“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 Féin 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 Féin MP who still cannot condemn IRA violence.
“We acknowledge that this decision will be welcomed by some and will disappoint others, but we believe it is in the best interests of our country and the Union.”
On Friday it emerged that police were investigating threats made against UUP staff members over the row.
Mr Aiken condemned those threats.
“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,” he said.
“It is appalling and totally reprehensible and should have no place in Northern Ireland in the 21st century.”
Earlier, former UUP Fermanagh MP Tom Elliott refused to confirm if he will stand in the forthcoming British General Election.
Mr Elliott found himself at the centre of speculation on Saturday after DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party would back him as the agreed unionist candidate in the Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency.
In a statement on Saturday, Mrs Foster said she believes in unionist co-operation and parties working together to maximise representation.
— Arlene Foster (@DUPleader) November 2, 2019
A previous unionist pact saw Mr Elliott win the Fermanagh South Tyrone Westminster seat in 2015, but Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew won the seat back in 2017.
Mr Elliott told the PA news agency that he is not prepared to confirm if he plans to run as a candidate.
“There is a selection meeting this week, I am not saying anything more at the moment,” he said.
It is understood that the UUP’s Fermanagh South Tyrone selection meeting will take place on Thursday.