Empey to step down 'in days'

ULSTER Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey is to resign within days, the News Letter understands.

Sir Reg, who is out of the country on holiday, had intended to step down in September, but the date has been brought forward to enable more time for potential leadership candidates to enter the contest.

The employment and learning minister had been scheduled to resign as UUP leader in early September, with nominations for his replacement immediately opening and then closing 48 hours later.

However, the party has now decided that such a sequence would not allow potential candidates sufficient time to decide whether to stand and gather the 35 signatures from nine constituencies necessary to stand for the leadership and Sir Reg is now expected to resign in about 10 days' time.

The date of the contest, to take place in Belfast's Waterfront Hall, has also been changed.

The leadership vote – in which each of the UUP's estimated 2,000-2,500 members has an equal say – had originally been scheduled for Saturday, September 25.

However, the date has now been moved forward by two days to the Thursday, partly as it is believed to be considerably less expensive to book the Waterfront Hall for a mid-week event.

The original date would also have clashed with a meeting of the Orange Order's grand lodge.

Sir Reg is set to be out of the country on the day when his replacement is chosen as he had already been scheduled to attend an investment conference in the US.

So far, only Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott has declared that he will contest the leadership.

However, once Sir Reg resigns, Lagan Valley assemblyman Basil McCrea is expected to make an announcement that he will stand against Mr Elliott.

Meanwhile, there is speculation that a third, possibly unelected, candidate could enter the contest.

News Letter columnist Alex Kane, who until January was the UUP's director of communications, revealed in his Monday column that the potential candidate – whose identity is unknown – may declare within two weeks and would strongly oppose the UUP's alliance with the Conservatives.