THE DUP have reacted bullishly after new Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt identified Upper Bann as one of his prime targets in the next Westminster elections.
When interviewed on BBC’s Sunday Politics programme Mr Nesbitt, who was elected with a 81 per cent majority on Saturday, said Upper Bann and South Antrim will probably be the two targets highest on the UUP’s agenda.
Despite failing to unseat the DUP’s David Simpson at the last Westminster poll in 2010, the Ulster Unionists polled well in Upper Bann, with the total votes recorded by Harry Hamilton the highest the party attracted in Northern Ireland.
Mr Hamilton has since left the UUP, but Mr Nesbitt is likely to identify either Jo-Anne Dobson or Colin McCusker as the candidate to fight Mr Simpson next time around.
However, a DUP source has warned Mr Nesbitt against splitting the Upper Bann unionist vote and possibly handing the constituency to Sinn Fein.
The source said, “On the comments about targeting Upper Bann, the DUP’s position is very clear. At the last Assembly Election the figures were SF 11,528, DUP 11,499 and UUP 10,426.
“If Mike Nesbitt wants to split the unionist vote and potentially treat Upper Bann to a Sinn Fein MP who wouldn’t turn up at parliament to represent the electorate, then clearly that is a matter for him and he is perfectly free to make that choice, however damaging to unionism it would prove to be.”
The DUP source stressed that it would be unthinkable for the Upper Bann seat to be lost to Sinn Fein.
He added, “With the proposed constituency boundary changes and fewer Northern Ireland MPs as well as the proposed new super-councils; it is absolutely essential that the new Upper Bann returns a unionist MP and maximises the number of unionist MLAs returned to the Assembly and the number of councillors elected to those super-councils.. That is what we are committed to.
“If Mike Nesbitt is set on a course of diminishing the number of unionist representatives, that is a policy choice for him.”
Mrs Dobson meanwhile predicted that Mr Nesbitt, a former TV presenter with UTV, would be the man to revive the party’s fortunes.
She said, “I would like to congratulate Mike Nesbitt on becoming the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. I know that he is a man of dedication, commitment and ability and that he will be a fantastic asset to the cause of strengthening our position within the United Kingdom and delivering common sense economic, social and cultural benefits for all of the people of Northern Ireland.
“I have served alongside Mike on the education committee at Stormont and have, from the outset, supported his campaign for the leadership of the party. As our education spokesperson Mike has begun the process of establishing a group of party members, with expertise in education, which will be there to advise and be consulted on areas of educational policy.”
It will be some time before the identity of the UUP candidate is known, but it looks to be a straight fight between Mrs Dobson and Mr McCusker.
The latter was recently co-opted on Craigavon Borough Council and has been appointed as the party’s chief operating officer.
Mr McCusker, the son of the late former Upper Bann MP Harold, also ran for the Assembly last year, alongside Mrs Dobson and Samuel Gardiner.
However, despite a promising first round of votes, he lost out on transfers with Mrs Dobson and Mr Gardiner elected as the UUP’s two MLAs.
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