The Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP and the British Conservative Party have agreed to back a “unionist unity” candidate in next month’s Westminster election in an effort to unseat Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew from the seat famously won by Bobby Sands in 1981.
The parties have been accused of engaging in a narrow sectarian agenda to deprive Sinn Fein of the symbolic seat of Fermanagh/South Tyrone on May 6th.
Rodney Connor, who retired as chief executive of Fermanagh council last month, will stand as an Independent but will in fact take the Conservative whip in Westminster.
The move was announced early yesterday and follows months of talks between the DUP and Ulster Unionists.
DUP Minister Arlene Foster, who was intending to stand for her party in the constituency, also suggested a similar move could oust the nationalist SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell in south Belfast.
“When unionism is divided unionism is weakened,” she said. “I have no doubt that Fermanagh and South Tyrone can set the example for other areas in Northern Ireland to follow.”
The Conservatives had insisted as late as Thursday they would field candidates in every constituency of the ‘United Kingdom’, including the 18 in the north of Ireland.
The party had jointly formed an election platform under the banner of the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force.
The Tories denied there was a U-turn. Its ‘Northern Ireland’ spokesman Owen Paterson said the Fermanagh/South Tyrone constituency “has characteristics that are unique within the UK”.
But a former vice-chairman of the Conservative Party in the Six Counties, Jeffrey Peel, resigned in protest at what he described as a “disgraceful sectarian pact”.
Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance all criticised the decision branding it “cynical” and “tribal”.
Ms Gildernew has a majority of 4,500 for Sinn Fein, but is also set to face a challenge from a relatively high profile SDLP candidate, Fearghal McKinney, a former television journalist.
She said: “The motivation [for the unionist pact] is to take me out of this seat. The unionist parties have cobbled together a regressive deal based on a negative agenda. It is about base sectarianism, and the old agenda of division and inequality.”
SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie said: “[Tory leader David Cameron is guilty of propping up sectarian politics and reinforcing sectarian division. It serves as proof that his pledge that his party’s foray into political life here was non-sectarian is a lie.”
Alliance’s Stephen Farry said: “For the Conservatives to be a party to this pact undermines any vestiges of credibility to their claim to be representing change and a new type of politics.”
Meanwhile, in South Belfast, former Belfast Mayor and veteran republican Alex Maskey is the expected Sinn Fein candidate.
Today [Monday], Maskey criticised what he has described as the “intervention” by the Protestant Orange Order to take the seat which was narrowly won by the SDLP four years ago.
Orangemen in the South Belfast constituency have written an open letter to UUP leader Reg Empey to strike a deal with the DUP to back a joint unionist candidate to oust McDonnell.
There has been no public discussion of an electoral pact between Sinn Fein and the SDLP to attempt to preserve the two Westminster seats. Despite a narrowing of their political differences, Sinn Fein’s policy of refusing to take its seats in the London parliament has previously weighed on prospects of a pan-nationalist electoral agreement.
Even such a pact would be unlikely to save the South Belfast seat for nationalism. Today, Mr Maskey described the Orange Order statement as “the latest example of the cultural mask slipping”.
He said: “The weekend statement seeking a unionist unity candidate in South Belfast is not the work of a cultural body.
“It is the work of a political organisation with an anti-Catholic ethos at its core,” he said.
Meanwhile, new hardline political party eirigi has said that any (traditional) republican participation in the Westminster election would be “unwise” as it reorganised and regained popular support.
“Irish republicanism cannot afford to have its political agenda set by the elections of the political establishment,” it said.
“Participation in elections should only be considered from a position of relative strength, where the results are likely to advance the struggle and not retard it.”