The Ulster Unionist Party will step aside in North Belfast to allow Democratic Unionist deputy leader Nigel Dodds a clear run, it has been announced.
Incoming UUP leader Steve Aiken had been under pressure not to run a candidate in North Belfast, where Mr Dodds is expected to face a close contest with Sinn Fein’s John Finucane.
Mr Finucane responded to the move by urging anti-Brexit unionists to vote for him.
Sinn Fein last week singled out Mr Dodds, who won a majority of just over 2,000 votes in North Belfast in 2017, as one of its key targets as it aims to increase its number of MPs from seven to eight.
In a statement on Sunday, Mr Aiken said he believes it is better to elect Mr Dodds than “facilitate the election of an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP”.
Mr Aiken had previously indicated the UUP would stand candidates across Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies.
He said the party has since been in discussions with senior political and community figures across North Belfast.
“In doing so, we listened respectfully to all views expressed, including deeply-held concerns that they will be unrepresented in Westminster in the critical months ahead,” he said.
“The choice in North Belfast is between Nigel Dodds as MP or an abstentionist MP who refuses to stand in Westminster to talk about health, education, justice, international affairs or the future direction of the United Kingdom.
“In the face of Boris Johnson`s terrible deal which forces Northern Ireland towards the edge of the Union, we cannot gift a seat to Sinn Fein who support this direction either in North Belfast or Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
“It is better to elect Nigel Dodds in North Belfast and hold him to account for his promises on the Union than facilitate the election of an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP who still cannot condemn IRA violence.
“We acknowledge that this decision will be welcomed by some and will disappoint others, but we believe it is in the best interests of our country and the Union.”
Mr Finucane responded by saying the choice in North Belfast is between “uber-Brexiteer” Mr Dodds or his own anti-Brexit position.
“There are many unionists in north Belfast who voted against Brexit. These voters are not represented by Nigel Dodds, one of the chief architects of the Tory Brexit,” he said.
“The choice is clear between an uber-Brexiteer or a candidate who will faithfully represent the views of the majority of people – unionist, nationalist and others – who reject the disaster of Brexit.”
The Ulster Unionist’s decision was criticised by the Alliance Party.
North Belfast candidate Nuala McAllister accused Mr Aiken of “backtracking”.
“This backtracking by Steve Aiken is not only him caving in but also effectively bowing the knee to the DUP before he has even taken the reins of the UUP.
“He made a big play about running candidates in every constituency but has now lost any credibility he had,” she said.
On Friday it emerged that police were investigating threats made against UUP staff members over the row.
Mr Aiken condemned those threats.
“In a modern democracy no-one should have to face threats, intimidation or coercion of any sort because of their involvement in the democratic process,” he said.
“It is appalling and totally reprehensible and should have no place in Northern Ireland in the 21st century.”
Earlier, former UUP Fermanagh MP Tom Elliott refused to confirm if he will stand in the forthcoming General Election.
Mr Elliott found himself at the centre of speculation on Saturday after DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party would back him as the agreed unionist candidate in the Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency.
In a statement on Saturday, Mrs Foster said she believes in unionist co-operation and parties working together to maximise representation.
A previous unionist pact saw Mr Elliott win the Fermanagh South Tyrone Westminster seat in 2015, but Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew won the seat back in 2017.
Mr Elliott told the PA news agency that he is not prepared to confirm if he plans to run as a candidate.
“There is a selection meeting this week, I am not saying anything more at the moment,” he said.
It is understood that the UUP’s Fermanagh South Tyrone selection meeting will take place on Thursday.