McCrea announces leadership challenge

BASIL McCrea is to stand for leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party, the News Letter can reveal.

Speaking last night from the United States, where he is attending the Milwaukee Irish Festival, the Lagan Valley MLA said the party was at "a fork in the road", adding that he believed now was the time to "do something different and seize the initiative" to build a new vision for unionism.

It was announced in May that Sir Reg Empey will stand down as UUP leader in the autumn, following the party's disastrous failure to win any seats at the general election, including his own unsuccessful attempt to capture the South Antrim Westminster seat from the DUP.

Thus far, the only other candidate to declare his intention to stand is Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott.

It is thought the leadership contest will be held on September 22.

Launching his leadership bid, Mr McCrea told the News Letter that he "does not underestimate the challenges ahead nor exaggerate the possibility of success".

He said: "This decision has not been in haste. I have taken time to consult with many members of the party and beyond.

"The recent electoral performances have been poor. Our failure to win any seats in the general election against an electoral opponent reeling from expenses and personal scandals is particularly disappointing.

"Within nine months the party will face electoral challenge for both council and Assembly elections. Our performance in these elections will seal the party's fate for years to come. The challenge cannot be underestimated."

In the wake of the UUP's general election pact with the Conservatives, which saw the departure of the party's only MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, Mr McCrea said he accepts that "the electorate is unsure what the UUP actually stands for".

"A variety of electoral pacts and mixed messages coming from senior party representatives have contributed to the impression of a party still seeking direction and lacking any unifying vision.

"There is a growing feeling in the party that change is needed, that more of the same will not do. There is a need to restore confidence and nurture ambition within the party.

"There is a need to define our message, to communicate our vision and to reposition the party for maximum electoral advantage."

Mr McCrea said the UUP must re-emerge under dynamic new leadership to "develop a new vision for unionism".

He said: "Now is the time for a UUP re-invigorated, re-energised and re-positioned under new leadership to take advantage. The party must be bold and radical. It must capture the mood within the electorate for change.

"It must offer candidates that reflect and relate to the widest possible section of the electorate. It must realise that electorate has moved on. It must develop a new vision for unionism - inclusive, positive and pluralist.

"Our role is to build a consensus to make Northern Ireland work, to make politics work and we must steadfastly oppose those who would drag us back to the past, whether through violence or political intransigence."

Mr McCrea said that while there would be many challenges faced by the new UUP leader, there would also be opportunities.

"There is a once-in-a-political-generation opportunity to do something different, to make a difference, to seize the initiative and to build a Northern Ireland for the benefit of all.

"It is this challenge that excites me. It is why I want to put myself forward as the next leader of the UUP."