Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie has said it would be a “personal failure” if his party does not return to Westminster following the General Election.

However, he insisted he would not walk away from the leadership if the UUP fails to win any seats.

Mr Beattie said his party is “in the hunt” in five constituencies across Northern Ireland.

In an interview with the PA news agency, Mr Beattie also hit out at the “incredible” personal abuse he receives from other unionists.

Doug Beattie sitting at a desk with a laptop in his constituency office in Portadown
Mr Beattie spoke to the PA news agency at his constituency office in Portadown (Jonathan McCambridge/PA)

He pointed to the hostile political environment as a reason why his party has been unable to persuade more women to run as candidates in the election.

The Army veteran has been party leader for three years.

The Ulster Unionists, once the dominant force in Northern Ireland politics, currently have no MPs.

However, Mr Beattie said his party would be “far more competitive” at the July 4 poll.

He said he believes the party is a force in South Antrim, Lagan Valley, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, North Down and East Antrim.

He said: “I think we are in the hunt in these five seats. It doesn’t mean we are going to win them but we are in the hunt.

“I am genuinely being realistic to say here are five constituencies with five people who are in the hunt and they will make a difference to the outcome of that election, either by winning it or by influencing who will win it.

“We have kept pretty positive. We have kept away from most of the squabbling that has been going on. The TUV and the DUP have been cutting lumps out of each other and we’ve attempted to stay clear of that.”

He added: “I do expect to (win seats). The game of elections is to get people elected.

“If we don’t get anybody elected it’s a failure.

“One would be great and would be seen as a success, but it wouldn’t be the success I want to have, I would like to have more if possible.

“Getting nobody back there would be a personal failure for me and a failure for the party.”

Mr Beattie said he had decided not to run in the election himself in the Upper Bann constituency where the DUP’s Carla Lockhart will be aiming to retain her seat.

He said: “I thought long and hard about this. I am the party leader. I think if I wasn’t the party leader I would be running now. But we have a devolved government at Stormont and I’m not running away from it, I think as a party leader that’s where I need to be.”

Mr Beattie also hit out at calls from the DUP leader Gavin Robinson for pacts between unionist parties in some seats during the election campaign.

He said: “This idea that if I don’t run then all the people who would have voted for me will automatically go to the DUP or go to the TUV is a real nonsense, they just will switch off to it and you will lose unionist voters.

“There has to be choice and we give choice.”

He added: “All the focus has been on unionists but people forget Sinn Fein have stood aside in four seats which just happen to be the four target seats of the Alliance Party.

“It is out there whether we like it or not, tactical voting happens, but that doesn’t mean it’s a pact.”

Doug Beattie in a white shirt sitting behind a desk with a mug and a laptop on it
Doug Beattie said his party was ‘in the hunt’ in five seats (Jonathan McCambridge/PA)

South Antrim is a constituency where the Ulster Unionists are optimistic of success with former Stormont health minister Robin Swann challenging the DUP’s Paul Girvan.

Shortly before he left post, Mr Swann refused to back the Assembly’s budget plan and said he would not implement “catastrophic cuts” in the health service.

But Mr Beattie rejected suggestions his party had used the crisis in the health service as an electoral tactic.

He said: “If you vote in favour of a budget you are accepting that budget and we couldn’t accept a budget that would create catastrophic cuts and in the health department that could lead to deaths, we were never going to do that.

“If we walk away (from the Executive) the DUP would get that ministry.

“As the smallest party in the Executive with the largest portfolio, we stood our ground, we didn’t move and were not going to move and we’re not going to implement the catastrophic cuts they are telling us to implement.”

The Ulster Unionists are running candidates in 17 of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland. However, Mr Beattie conceded that it is “not good enough” that only three of their candidates are women.

He said: “There are more women that we went out and asked to run for us. I have to say there is a concern for women who run in elections and the abuse they receive.

“We have had an issue getting women to run for us. We have three this time, the last general election we had one.

“We want to do far better and I guess we will do far better. It is not to say we don’t have women within the party.

“It is harder to get women to come forward because of the environment.

“I am a unionist, I am a strong unionist, I believe in this union, I fight for this union, I have fought for this union but the abuse I get from other unionists is incredible, it really is.

“From nationalists I get it from a particular angle, I accept that. They say you are part of the murder machine, you were in the British Army, that’s a point of view.

“But I get that abuse right across the board and from many unionists.

“Going back to the women, they see that and some of them just don’t want to get involved in that.

“But look, it is a problem for me, it is a problem for the party. We are putting women into positions of authority but we need to get them elected.

“It is my problem, I have to deal with it.”

Mr Beattie said it would be for his party to decide if he should remain as leader in the event it does not win any seats in the election.

He added: “I have met kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, but nothing is better than being a leader and leading your political party. It is an honour of my life to lead the Ulster Unionist Party.

“I was put in as the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party by its membership, they voted me in, it will be the membership that decides when I leave.

“I won’t walk away until they tell me it’s time to move on. My membership will decide my future.”