Election '97: Paisley pact aims to beat off Sinn Fein

DUP candidates stand down in two seats to give a clear run to the Unionists
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The Independent Online
The Rev Ian Paisley yesterday took the bull by the horns and withdrew two of his general election candidates, taking some of the heat out of a recent bout of intensive inter-Unionist rivalry.

In a surprise unilateral initiative, he announced that he was pulling Democratic Unionist Party contenders out of the West Tyrone and North Belfast constituencies.

The move means North Belfast remains a safe Unionist seat while in West Tyrone the chances of a Sinn Fein victory are reduced.

Mr Paisley declared that in making the move he was "putting Ulster before the DUP" by attempting to maximise Unionist votes.

He called on David Trimble's UIster Unionists to respond by allowing his party a clear run in two other constituencies.

The development means that in North Belfast the sitting Ulster Unionist MP, Cecil Walker, can be confident of re-election.

In West Tyrone, a new seat created by boundary revisions, it means Ulster Unionist candidate William Thompson is now in with a chance.

The constituency has a nationalist majority, but with Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party both in the field, and Mr Thompson as the single Unionist candidate, the result could be close.

In elections to the Northern Ireland forum last year, the SDLP and Sinn Fein each took 28 per cent of the vote, the Ulster Unionists took 18 per cent and Mr Paisley's party 16 per cent. This means that if Unionist voters rally around Mr Thompson he could take the seat.

It was the DUP's strong showing in the forum election which encouraged the party to stake claims in seats such as West Tyrone - but the facts of political life have in effect dictated that the Unionist electorate would not countenance a split vote.

Mr Paisley and Mr Trimble have held a series of meetings aimed at finding an agreed share-out of seats but these were not successful. Some observers now believe that in this stand-off Mr Paisley blinked first. The main remaining bone of contention is now East Belfast, which is held by Mr Paisley's deputy, Peter Robinson.

Here the Ulster Unionists have said they will run Reg Empey, a well-known former lord mayor of Belfast.

Although there is no appreciable nationalist presence in the constituency there could be a three-way split involving Mr Robinson, Mr Empey and a middle of the road Alliance candidate.

This prospect has galvanised Mr Robinson into issuing a flood of electoral faxes.

The latest of these yesterday berated "Vote-splitter Empey", with Mr Robinson declaring: "There is only one Unionist who can win East Belfast and every voter in East Belfast knows it is Peter Robinson."