MIKE Nesbitt has appealed to his party not to “dance to a republican tune” by making controversial comments about homosexuality.
The UUP leader made the comments in a private email to party members just hours after a UUP councillor who compared homosexuality to a “disease” retracted the comment.
Mr Nesbitt’s email, obtained by the News Letter, said the issue of gay marriage “continues to give local political parties problems, even though there is no realistic prospect of it being introduced in Northern Ireland”.
The email said: “Despite this, Sinn Fein are using this sensitive issue for self-interest and promotion. Please do not dance to a republican tune.
“I affirm that all members are free to offer their personal view on the concept, but there is no opportunity to vote, except those engineered by Sinn Fein.”
The UUP leader told members that his party supported equality for all and added: “For me, that means demonstrating compassion, being mindful of the sensitivities surrounding the issue and to being careful not to use language which might offend.”
Earlier the UUP released a statement of “clarification” after Magherafelt councillor Jackie Crawford’s comment about homosexuality had led to criticism.
Cllr Crawford made the remark after a meeting of Magherafelt council on Tuesday night which discussed a Sinn Fein motion calling for same-sex marriage.
The meeting also heard two DUP councillors describe homosexuality as “an abomination”.
In response, the DUP said that it upholds the right of its members to “quote from scriptures to explain religious objection to [gay marriage]”.
Cllr Crawford, who was elected in 2005, said after the council meeting: “I’m not against gays, it’s a pity for them.
“It’s a pity they have that disease and they can’t help it. It’s the same as you being born with a disability. They can’t help what they are.
“I know gay people and they are nice people and not bad people but they should not be getting married.”
On Friday the UUP released a statement which said that leader Mr Nesbitt had met Cllr Crawford to discuss the issue.
It quoted Cllr Crawford as saying: “While I re-emphasise my opposition to same-sex marriage, I did not intend to cause any hurt or offence with my use of language.
“The term ‘disease’ was used as a figure of speech which I would not use again and I regret its unintended impact and any offence caused.”
Mr Nesbitt said: “As party leader I am happy that Jackie has clarified his position and retracted the term ‘disease’.
“I affirm Jackie’s right to hold a view against same-sex marriage.
“This incident highlights the need for all Ulster Unionists to demonstrate compassion, be mindful of the sensitivities surrounding the issue and to be careful not to use language which might offend.”
Sinn Fein is bringing motions about gay marriage to councils across the island of Ireland. In Belfast, unionists and several SDLP members left the chamber before the debate began but in other areas of Northern Ireland the issue has split councils along nationalist-unionist lines, with unionists opposing the proposal.
However, earlier this month splits in the SDLP over the issue became public when MLA Conall McDevitt claimed the party supported changing the law to allow for same-sex marriage.
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said that was wrong as the party had a range of views on the subject and that his South Belfast colleague had exaggerated and been “playing to the gallery” at a Gay Pride debate in Belfast.
The Alliance Party is to debate the issue next month.