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Last Updated: Friday, 1 April 2005, 19:51 GMT 20:51 UK
Unionists discuss election pact
Gareth Gordon
Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

The prime minister hasn't spoken quite yet but he's surely clearing his throat.

And soon we'll all be officially in full election mode - as if we're not there already!

Perhaps that's why Prince Charles was so grumpy last week - and he's not the only one.

Tony Blair
The prime minister is preparing to call a general election

Easter has come and gone and so it would seem is any chance of resurrecting a unionist voting pact.

Neither the DUP nor the Ulster Unionists are prepared to pronounce the idea dead - but normal hostilities have resumed - though in truth they've never stopped.

David Trimble has written to Ian Paisley saying his strategy will only serve to boost Sinn Fein's election chances.

Ian Paisley replies saying Mr Trimble's plan that the two unionist parties should stand aside in Foyle, South Down and Newry and Armagh, to allow the SDLP a better chance of ousting Sinn Fein, is like asking unionists to "become united Irelanders".

And then there's West Tyrone where the SDLP are already considering standing aside to allow the Omagh hospital campaigner Dr Kieran Deeny a free run at Sinn Fein.

Mr Trimble has already spoken about the possibility of both unionist parties doing the same for "an independent".

The party's candidate in south Belfast, Michael McGimpsey, confirmed on Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme that the offer was made about Dr Deeny.

And what did he claim was the DUP's reason for rejecting the proposal? Good old fashioned sectarianism - a claim hotly denied by the DUP.

Dr Kieran Deeny
The SDLP may not run against Dr Kieran Deeny in West Tyrone

Said Mr McGimpsey: "The possible candidate in there is a chap called Deeny who's not SDLP, who as far as I'm aware is not a nationalist but I have to say to you that the response they got in the discussions were that...the SDLP, Sinn Fein, Deeny...all out of the same sow's litter, and that's a quotation.

"What you were actually talking about there is this is a sectarian issue and I think that's the problem - - Deeny is a Catholic, he's a Fenian...."

The DUP's Arlene Foster, said that was "highly offensive".

She continued: "I find it very interesting that Michael has confirmed what I have said all along, that Deeny was the candidate being talked about by his leadership.

"That has grave implications for Fermanagh-South Tyrone because Deeny is a single issue candidate about the hospital in Omagh and that's his key issue and that is against the interests of the people in Fermangh-South Tyrone. And yet he is expecting his (Fermangh-South Tyrone) candidate, Tom Elliot, to endorse that."

Arlene Foster and Michael McGimpsey are two candidates who would be directly affected if the DUP's proposal for a pact in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and South Belfast was miraculously adopted.

The problem is the Ulster Unionists regard both seats as their own, even though, as Arlene Foster points out, Fermanagh-South Tyrone is now "a Sinn Fein seat".

Both parties believe they would stand the better chance of winning it should there be a single unionist candidate.

And in South Belfast, Mr McGimpsey says there is a chance the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell could take the seat if the unionist vote is sufficiently split.

That, says Arlene Foster, is a matter for the voters.

Either way the Ulster Unionists' proposal that they don't fight in the six constituencies held by the DUP if the DUP don't fight the five seats held by them - in addition to the DUP standing aside in Fermangh-South Tyrone - was never a runner.

Mr McGimpsey says it was only an opening gambit - Mrs Foster says it was a firm proposal.

And so we're back where we started.

The DUP sees each of the Ulster Unionists' five seats as fair game - they will be disappointed not to pick up at least three of them with the party leader David Trimble's scalp in Upper Bann, the prize they want most.

And if that happened Michael McGimpsey would find himself a strong favourite to take over - provided of course, he holds out in South Belfast.

Pact or no pact the stakes could not be higher.


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