IN DEPTH negotiations between a number of political parties about the possibility of running a joint North Down Unionist candidate in the forthcoming Westminster election are gathering pace.

The Spectator has learned that ‘high level’ discussions are ongoing between the DUP, the UUP, the TUV and the Orange Order.

It is understood the aim of the negotiations is to select a single Unionist candidate – with Independent Unionist Alex Easton believed to be the front runner – in a bid to win back the seat from the Alliance Party’s Stephen Farry.

However the North Down MP, who has already announced his plans to seek re-election, has slammed the notion of an electoral pact stating they involve ‘negative politics’ that try to ‘keep somebody out’ as well as ‘removing choice rather than offering a positive alternative’.

Ultimately, the Alliance Party deputy leader said it would be North Down constituents who would decide who would win the Westminster seat and not the political parties who ‘carve it up behind closed doors’.

The battle lines have been well and truly drawn for the next Westminster election which could be called by current Prime Minister Rishi Sunk as early as next spring or as late as November 2024.

Should a joint candidate be agreed for North Down amongst the Unionist political parties this would be a dramatic u-turn by the Ulster Unionist Party whose leader Doug Beattie has previously rejected calls for electoral pacts.

News of the ongoing negotiations comes just weeks after Bangor’s most senior Orangeman called for rival unionist parties to agree a single candidate to ‘oust’ North Down’s current MP Stephen Farry.

Former DUP Assemblyman Alex Easton, who now stands as an Independent Unionist, had been hotly tipped to win the North Down seat four years ago, but Mr Farry snatched victory from his hands by 2,968 votes.

Mr Easton made clear his sights were set on relieving Mr Farry of his MP crown when he made his victory speech following the 2022 Assembly elections, as he called on fellow Unionists to ‘work with me’ for the next Westminster election to secure the seat for Unionism.

When asked his views on being considered the front-runner in a possible Unionist pact Mr Easton said there appears to be ‘many rumours, gossip and misinformation floating about, none of which I have any interest in’.

“If Unionism wants to come together with something that meets the best interests and needs of all the people of North Down as their priority then I always have an open door and a listening ear. I would wish the political parties well with any discussions that may be ongoing.”

However, Mr Farry said he intends to campaign for the forthcoming general election on a ‘positive and inclusive platform’ that would be based on his ‘track record of

representation and delivery, and my policies and positions”.

“Electoral pacts are about negative politics, trying to keep somebody out or removing choice rather than offering a positive alternative,” said Mr Farry.

“The only people who will determine the next MP of North Down are the people of North Down. It is not up for parties to try to carve it up behind closed doors.”

He said: “North Down is an increasingly diverse and progressive constituency. I believe that the Alliance vision and values is most in tune with the views of constituents. I am confident people will back Alliance and the strong team, as evidenced by recent election results.

“Parliamentary representation is multi-faceted, ranging from advocacy, accountability and scrutiny, and handling a diverse range of, and frequently complex, constituency work. It can’t readily be reduced to a simple label.

“Given the differences between various unionist parties, it would be interesting to see what stances any joint unionist candidate would take on crucial current issues such as the continued boycott of the Assembly with all that means for our struggling public services, the future of our economy and a range of social issues.”

An Ulster Unionist Party spokesman said Ulster Unionists are currently selecting candidates for all Westminster constituencies, including North Down.

“When the selection process has concluded the Ulster Unionist chosen candidates will be announced,” he said