UUP candidate vows to face down calls to step aside

An Ulster Unionist standing in the marginal South Belfast constituency has vowed to face down calls for him to step aside.

Michael Henderson said he would not be deterred by negativity from other unionists critical of his party’s decision to run.

The UUP has already stepped aside in North Belfast to give DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds a better chance of fending off a challenge from Sinn Fein. In return the DUP is not challenging the UUP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

The UUP had faced calls from some loyalists and unionists to also sit out the South Belfast race after Sinn Fein and the Greens stood aside to strengthen the SDLP’s bid to unseat the DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly.

General Election 2019
Michael Henderson is greeted by a well wisher (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Henderson, a councillor on Lisburn and Castlereagh council, was joined by veteran UUP member Jeff Dudgeon as he handed in his nomination papers at the Electoral Office in Belfast city centre on Tuesday.

“There has been some negative comments on Facebook and social media but you’d expect that as well,” he said.

“But there has been positives as well.”

Mr Henderson insisted he would not be deterred.

“Definitely not, I am here to give people a choice and hope people will accept that choice,” he said.

The UUP decision in North Belfast proved controversial, as it came only a week after incoming leader Steve Aiken pledged to run in all 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland.

Police are investigating alleged paramilitary threats made to the party in the wake of Mr Aiken’s initial pledge.

UUP leadership
Steve Aiken was confirmed as the new Ulster Unionist Party leader (Niall Carson/PA)

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill, who was also at the Electoral Office on Tuesday, would not be drawn on the challenge to her position as she accompanied three candidates as they handed in their nomination papers.

Former Stormont minister John O’Dowd is vying to replace Ms O’Neill in a rare contested election for a senior leadership role at the party’s Ard Fheis in Londonderry at the weekend.

Asked about the election, she said: “Am looking forward to the Ard Fheis and the membership will decide the outcome.”

Ms O’Neill joined north Belfast candidate John Finucane, west Belfast candidate Paul Maskey and South Antrim candidate Declan Kearney at the Electoral Office.

“This is an election of a generation, it is so important that people on the 12th of December come out in very strong numbers to reject Brexit, to reject the DUP and vote for something better,” she said. “We have the candidates to deliver that.”

Alliance Party leader and East Belfast candidate Naomi Long joined the party’s other three candidates in the city – Paula Bradshaw, Nuala McAllister and Donnamarie Higgins – as they handed in their nomination papers.

Ms McAllister said it was significant that the party, which has refused to engage in any electoral pacts, was fielding an all-female line-up in the city.

“How long ago did we get the right to vote, just one hundred years ago for women,” she said.

“We have come a short way (since) to be perfectly honest, because it’s still particularly difficult for females to come forward.

“So it’s fantastic to see strong female candidates coming forward.”

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