DUP councillor nominated for Easton Stormont seat

composite image, Alex Easton pictured smiling on left wearing a navy suit jacket and tie with light blue shirt, Peter Martin on right pictured against a grey background, wearing a grey suit jacket, baby blue shirt and black glasses
Peter Martin (right) has been nominated to replace Alex Easton (left) in the Northern Ireland Assembly [PA Media / Ards and North Down Council]

A Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) councillor has been nominated to replace the newly elected independent North Down MP Alex Easton in the assembly.

Peter Martin is currently a councillor in Ards and North Down and has worked as a special advisor to DUP ministers at Stormont.

The move was confirmed on Wednesday evening.

The DUP stood aside in North Down to give Alex Easton a free run in the Westminster election.

In 2021 Alex Easton quit the DUP after claiming the party had no “respect, discipline or decency”.

He had been a party member for 21 years.

It came just days after Edwin Poots was ousted as leader and replaced by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

Announcing his replacement on Wednesday, Alex Easton said he "most definitely" would not be re-joining the DUP.

"When I left, it was permanently - I won’t be dictated to by any political party," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

Alex Easton in blue suit, giving speech at count centre after 2024 general election. Stephen Farry stands in background in black suit, white shirt and yellow tie
Alex Easton (right) topped the poll last week when he was elected as the new MP for North Down replacing Alliance's Stephen Farry (left) [PA]

Mr Easton stood as an independent candidate in the assembly election in North Down in 2022 and topped the poll with more than 9,500 votes.

He outpolled the combined vote of the two DUP candidates.

He topped the poll again last week when he was elected as the new MP for North Down replacing the Alliance’s Stephen Farry.

While there was no formal pact, Mr Easton was supported by the DUP and TUV who did not field a candidate in the contest.

Welcoming Mr Martin's nomination, DUP leader Gavin Robinson said the election in North Down "demonstrated what can be achieved when various strands of unionism come together" to maximise pro-Union representation.

"The DUP not only endorsed Alex Easton as a candidate, but representatives, members and supporters played a part in the successful campaign," he added.

'Pro-Union voice'

Though questions will be asked about a possible pre-election deal between Mr Easton and the DUP to hand his assembly seat back to the party, it is understood the North Down MP will deny that charge.

He has previously claimed that he was finding it difficult to find a replacement to take his seat because of the challenges of political life.

In a statement, Mr Martin said he was "delighted" to have been nominated to represent North Down within the assembly and thanked Mr Easton for the endorsement.

He added: "I want also to be a positive pro-Union voice within the Assembly chamber and demonstrate the benefits we will receive from being part of our United Kingdom."

With Mr Martin retaking the seat for the DUP in North Down, it will give the party a much needed boost after a bruising general election where it lost three MPs.

It leaves the DUP with 26 assembly seats, just one behind Sinn Féin. The party lost three seats in the assembly election in 2022.

Analysis: Enda McClafferty, political editor

Just days after fulfilling his life time ambition by becoming MP for North Down, Alex Easton is poised to take a big gamble.

By handing his assembly seat back to the DUP, he could trigger a backlash from his voters.

Many of them supported him because he turned his back on party politics and stood as an independent.

He made it clear during the campaign he would never rejoin the DUP but handing his assembly seat to the party is the next best thing.

While he will insist there was no side deal with his former party ahead of the election that will not stop the questions.

But Alex Easton knows he has at least four years to win back any trust he may lose.

Stormont Building
New MLAs have been selected to replace members who were successful in last week's Westminster election [Getty Images]

Meanwhile, Alliance and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) have selected new assembly members after last week's Westminster election.

Lisburn and Castlereagh councillor Michelle Guy has been selected by Alliance to replace Sorcha Eastwood in Lagan Valley.

On Tuesday, a selection process saw UUP Mid and East Antrim councillor Colin Crawford selected to take former North Antrim MLA Robin Swann's seat.

The co-option must be officially declared to the chief electoral officer before an MLA can be sworn in to the assembly.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister has yet to announce his replacement for the assembly, but must do so by the end of the week.

Since 2016 politicians have been banned from sitting at Stormont and in another elected legislature.

What is co-option?

Politicians have been banned from sitting at Stormont and in another elected legislature - a practice known as dual mandate or 'double jobbing' - since 2016.

The co-option system is used to fill vacancies at Stormont.

The process most commonly takes place after an election, resignation or death.

Once seats become vacant, the co-option process can take place, as laid out in Section B of the Northern Ireland (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2009.

Step one is for the party of the MLA to nominate a replacement within seven days.

The chief electoral officer will then write to the nominee asking them to confirm within seven days that they are willing and able to take up the post.

Independents choose their replacement.