Northern Ireland

Assembly election: 'Protect pro-union seats' says UUP's Kennedy

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Media captionMike Nesbitt said he would give the SDLP his second preference vote

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt's comments that he intends to give the SDLP his second preference vote in the upcoming election have sparked controversy within his party.

Senior UUP figure Danny Kennedy has urged voters in the Newry and Armagh constituency not to follow that lead.

He tweeted that he would advise his supporters to transfer their vote to "the only other unionist candidate".

He said it was "important to protect pro-union seats".

Northern Ireland goes to the polls on 2 March to elect 90 members of the Assembly - the snap election was called after the power-sharing executive collapsed over a botched green energy scheme.

Under Northern Ireland's single transferable vote system, voters rank candidates in order of preference.

On Sunday, Mr Nesbitt said he would select the SDLP as his second preference after the UUP on his ballot paper in March's election.

But he said he would not tell supporters to follow his example.

"I think I understand Ulster Unionist voters and they don't like being told what to do," he told BBC's Sunday Politics show.

Sinn Féin's Carál Ní Chuilín has criticised Mr Nesbitt's comments.

"Mike Nesbitt has no right to tell people how to vote," she said, adding that it would be "interesting to see what his position is in relation to implementing the Good Friday Agreement and equality."

Stewart Dickson of Alliance said that in the past Mr Nesbitt had urged people to vote Conservative, and "got into bed with the DUP".

He said the UUP leader was now "all over the place", and was "not bringing his party along with him".

Analysis

By BBC NI News Political Editor, Mark Devenport

Why shouldn't the opposition advise its voters to back their respective parties with the aim of pushing the old governing partners out, or at least weakening their hand in future negotiations?

However Northern Ireland elections are never that simple.

Traditional unionist and nationalist voting habits die hard.

In some seats Mr Nesbitt's candidates will no doubt be living in hope that the generosity of other unionists will see them returned in the later stages of a count.

In this context, it's easy to understand the decision by the veteran Newry and Armagh MLA Danny Kennedy to advise his voters to transfer to other unionists, even if it does jar with his leader's attitude.

Read more of Mark's analysis here.

On Monday's BBC Radio Ulster's Stephen Nolan Show, Mr Nesbitt defended his comments.

"This isn't about a pre-election pact with the SDLP. There is no such thing. What I'm looking forward to is the far side and the fact that there will have to be a partnership if we are to have a devolved government," he said.

"I think it strengthens unionism to celebrate our diversity in Northern Ireland and on the far side there has to be a cross-community partnership government."

Image caption UUP MLA Danny Kennedy's message to supporters went against his leader's comments

His comments have caused a stir among his own party faithful and other unionist parties.

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster said following Mr Nesbitt's logic could mean fewer unionists in the Assembly.

"The UUP leader is personally supportive of voting in a way that helps elect nationalists who will take their election as an endorsement of support for their united Ireland position," she wrote.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Danny Kennedy's tweet indicated he would not be following his party leader's example

The DUP's Jim Wells tweeted: "‏If voters follow Mike Nesbitt's advice they will guarantee that the 5th seat in South Down will go to Sinn Fein and not a unionist. Madness."

In a letter to The News Letter, sent before Mr Nesbitt made his comments, former UUP MP Lord Kilclooney said unionists should vote all the way down candidate list.

"A unionist should vote for all pro-UK parties in descending order and then also vote for united Ireland parties placing the one you dislike most at the very end of your preferences," he wrote.

"This would result in a unionist being elected and the more acceptable nationalist being elected rather than one who supported terrorism or violence."

The UUP and SDLP were both opposition parties in the last Northern Ireland Assembly.

Speaking on the Sunday Politics show, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he would transfer to the UUP, but would be using his top preferences for the SDLP.

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