ESTRANGED Ulster Unionist MLA Basil McCrea attended UUP headquarters on Friday for a crucial disciplinary hearing which is expected to decide his future in the party.
The Lagan Valley Assemblyman and former leadership contender arrived at Strandtown Hall in east Belfast around 4pm before entering to put his case to a panel of five veteran UUP members chaired by Tom Fleming.
Although Mr McCrea, who was accompanied by a note-taker, said that he was happy for the hearing to be held in public, the UUP did not open the meeting to the media.
Under the disciplinary committee’s rules, it has five days to adjudicate on the two complaints, which come from UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and Marc Woods, secretary of the Waringstown branch. If the committee finds against him, Mr McCrea has the right to appeal to the party officers.
The complaint against Mr McCrea has not been made public by the party but in a public statement from Mr Nesbitt, in which he announced that he was withdrawing the whip from the MLA, he accused him of an “inability to exercise self-discipline or demonstrate the basic characteristics of teamwork”.
The party yesterday again declined to comment on the hearing, which had initially been scheduled to take place a week ago.
Parts of a dossier upon which Mr McCrea relied at last night’s hearing have been seen by the News Letter.
Within it is a lengthy defence of his support for the flying of the Union Flag on designated days, something which is central to the complaint against him. The UUP’s three Belfast councillors agreed with the DUP that the flag should fly from Belfast City Hall 365 days a year and it was Mr McCrea’s public criticism of that stance which led to the complaint.
In the documents seen by the News Letter, Mr McCrea attempts to establish that he was articulating long-established UUP policy and that it was the councillors who had changed the party’s position.
Numerous extracts from Hansard, the official record of proceedings at Westminster and Stormont, are contained in the bundle of papers which Mr McCrea took into yesterday’s hearing.
Among them is an extract from a debate in the House of Commons on May 16, 2000, where the then UUP leader David Trimble – whose wife, Lady Trimble, was on yesterday’s disciplinary panel – argued for emergency legislation which formalised in law that the Union Flag should fly on designated days.
He told the Commons that the legislation needed to pass through the Commons and the Lords “quickly” and added: “Unfortunately, however, I believe the form of the order will not settle the issue and may contain the seeds of future trouble.”
Despite the UUP leader, now Lord Trimble, urging support for the legislation, two UUP MPs voted against it that night – Roy Beggs Sr and the Rev Martin Smyth.
The same day in the Lords, UUP peer Lord Rogan said: “I believe that today we should instead be discussing on what days the flag will fly and on which buildings.”
The following month in the Assembly, the then DUP leader Ian Paisley moved a motion which supported flying the Union Flag “on Executive buildings in Northern Ireland on all designated days, in keeping with the arrangements for other parts of the United Kingdom, and, additionally, on Parliament Buildings on all sitting days”.
That motion, which came against the backdrop of Sinn Fein ministers refusing to fly the Union Flag at all from their departmental buildings, led to UUP MLA Michael McGimpsey speaking in favour of the motion.
A UUP submission that year – the last time when there was such significant debate about the flying of the flag – to an ad hoc Assembly committee established to advise the Secretary of State on the issue, also supported the flag being flown on designated days. In fact, the document went further and said the Union Flag should fly on a “maximum” of 17 days a year.
It said: “Designating a maximum of 17 days out of 365 days in the year clearly indicated that, while upholding the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, the British Government has no intention of flaunting the Union Flag.”
That UUP document also referred to the different flag policies at local councils, which would not be covered by the regulations. However, rather than describe the possibility of designated days at councils such as Belfast as a potential problem, it said that council offices cannot “benefit directly” from the designated days regulations.
That is likely to have been written with reference to nationalist councils in the west of Northern Ireland, 11 of which do not fly the Union Flag at all. However, Mr McCrea yesterday argued to the panel that the document, in speaking of the “benefit” of designated days, clearly did not see the policy which Alliance voted for in Belfast and which Mr McCrea has supported as a disaster for unionism.
In October 2000, during an Assembly debate on the ad hoc committee on flags report, the then UUP MLA Esmond Birnie said that in contrast to those who believed that the Union Flag should be flown at all times, “in contrast, the Ulster Unionist Party agrees with these regulations, insofar as they place the flying of the flag on the same footing as in the rest of the United Kingdom”.
He added: “The flying of the flag on 17 days out of 365 upholds our constitutional position without flaunting the flag. Thus, the Ulster Unionist Party supports the motion.”
Another speaker in the debate, the then UUP MLA Joan Carson – who was a member of the disciplinary panel yesterday – said there should be “the flying of the Union Flag with dignity on all public buildings on recognised dates”.
The then DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson interrupted Mrs Carson to accuse the UUP of wanting “a prohibition” on flying the flag and said that the party “want it to be an offence to fly the flag on Government buildings, except on a dozen or so days in the year”.
However, the then UUP Environment Minister, Sam Foster, hit back at Mr Robinson and backed designated days, saying: “Today’s attack by Peter Robinson was an assault on the Unionist Party. The Union Flag must be flown with dignity and decorum on the designated days.”
In November 2000, UUP peers Lord Rogan and Lord Molyneaux spoke in support of Government regulations that actually reduced the number of designated days from 20 days to 16 and prevented the flag being flown on any days not designated in law.