The North's two main unionist parties appeared to be on collision course at the next British general election after the Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists confirmed they would contest a key Ulster Unionist seat.
Following the selection of former Stormont Culture Minister Michael McGimpsey as the Ulster Unionist candidate in South Belfast, last night, DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson said his party would offer an alternative to unionist voters in the constituency in the forthcoming Westminster poll.
The East Belfast MP, the DUP’s director of elections, said: “The Ulster Unionist Party has not learnt from its previous folly.
“Michael McGimpsey, a Trimbleite, is a key architect of the failed Belfast Agreement and someone who elevated Sinn Féin/IRA into the government of Northern Ireland without the decommissioning of a single bullet and whilst the IRA continued all of its terror and criminal activities.
“Such a candidate does not offer the electorate the opportunity to reject the republican agenda given his track record of negotiating and working alongside Sinn Féin/IRA.
“Consequently the DUP will, therefore, take immediate steps to ensure that unionists in south Belfast have the opportunity to vote for a unionist candidate who will represent traditional unionist principles and who will resolutely oppose the Sinn Féin/IRA agenda.”
Mr Robinson’s comments have set up the prospect of a tight battle for the South Belfast seat at the general election, with SDLP deputy leader Dr Alastair McDonnell hoping to capitalise on a split unionist vote.
Mr McGimpsey was chosen as the Ulster Unionist candidate at a selection meeting last night to defend the seat occupied by the current MP, the Rev Martin Smyth who steps down after 23 years’ service.
The UUP had a 5,399 majority in the 2001 general election over the SDLP in a contest which the DUP did not take part in.
However in the 2003 Assembly Election, the margin was a lot tighter.
The Ulster Unionists had the largest share of the vote in the constituency but its lead over the SDLP was just 1,293 votes.
Mr McGimpsey last night warned the DUP that unionist voters would not tolerate any attempt to split their community’s vote and he drew comparisons with the loss of the Ulster Unionist Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat to Sinn Féin at the last General Election when a DUP backed anti-Good Friday agreement candidate split the vote.
Mr McGimpsey said: “What the party said tonight in this constituency is that South Belfast is not for sale. I am delighted to have been selected to follow in the footsteps of the Rev Martin Smyth. It is a seat which the Ulster Unionists have held in the past and will continue to hold.
“I am convinced that if the DUP attempt to do in South Belfast what they did in Fermanagh and South Tyrone four years ago, unionist voters will reject that.”
Mr McGimpsey has been an Assembly member for South Belfast since 1998 and is a staunch supporter of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.
That has brought him into direct conflict with the DUP which emerged the largest party in the North and the largest unionist party in the 2003 Stormont election.
In the first round of votes at last night’s selection meeting, Mr McGimpsey secured the support of 62 constituency association members only just falling short of a majority.
Christopher Montgommery, a former aide to ex-Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith attracted 47 votes, Belfast City councillor Bob Stoker got 10 and Jack Irwin had seven.
The DUP and Ulster Unionists are preparing for a fierce battle for Unionist votes in the May’s local government elections in Northern Ireland and in the next general election which is expected in the same month.
The DUP currently has six seats, having won five in 2001 and gained another following the defection last year of Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson from the Ulster Unionists.
David Trimble’s UUP won six seats in 2001, dropping to five following Mr Donaldson’s decision to quit the party. The Party is fielding a number of high profile Assembly members against the Democratic Unionists’ MPs, with former Stormont Economy Minister Sir Reg Empey bidding to unseat Peter Robinson in East Belfast and East Londonderry MLA David McClarty hoping to upset the local DUP MP Gregory Campbell.
Mr Trimble is also expected to face a tough battle for his seat in Upper Bann where the DUP is fielding Assembly member David Simpson.
Both parties are also committed to fielding candidates in Fermanagh and South Tyrone where Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew narrowly squeaked home in a tight contest in 2001 with the Ulster Unionist candidate James Cooper.
The DUP has chosen Assembly member Arlene Foster, who defected along with Mr Donaldson last year from the UUP, as there candidate while the Ulster Unionists have chosen MLA Tom Elliott as their standard bearer in the general election.