MIKE Nesbitt has declined to comment on his former deputy leader’s scathing criticism of one of his major policy initiatives — the Unionist Forum.
On Friday night John McCallister spoke at length against the forum, which was jointly set up by Mr Nesbitt and Peter Robinson in an attempt to end the flag protests, and warned that in his view it could even undermine support for the Union.
The South Down MLA told an audience in Co Louth that the forum – which includes representatives of all the unionist parties, the loyal orders and loyalist paramilitaries – was “self-defeating” and called for a return to the “generous but robust” unionism of the UUP under Lord Trimble.
He described the forum as “potentially a cul-de-sac for unionism” and backed colleague Basil McCrea – who faces a disciplinary hearing on Friday – by saying that in Belfast “a move from 365 [flag] days could and should have been accommodated”.
When contacted by the News Letter on Sunday, Mr Nesbitt was unable to take the call.
His press officer later said that the party would not be commenting on the speech.
But Mr McCallister said that the largely nationalist audience in Co Louth had listened “and seemed to have a real interest in what was happening” north of the border.
“The feedback has been very positive but in a speech like this you are wanting to stimulate a bit of debate,” he said.
“We’ve had a difficult six or seven weeks and people are looking around for thoughts and ideas on how we can conduct our business better and how we can avoid ending up in the crisis situation that has emerged.”
When asked if he should be saying such things in public, rather than in private, Mr McCallister said: “In almost every political party there is political debate, both publicly and privately – on Saturday Lord Tebbit described David Cameron’s Europe policy as a cul-de-sac.
“You’re always going to have that political debate and I think it’s healthy for members to be challenged about where they are going, particularly in what has been a difficult time for politics.”
Mr McCallister – who was sacked by Mr Nesbitt in September after warning that the UUP was “sleepwalking into unionist unity” – said that people had asked him questions after the speech about how the flags dispute could have been avoided.
Mr McCallister said that he told them “we could have handled it differently – and from both sides, in unionism and nationalism – before the vote at Belfast City Council”.
And Mr McCallister said that the flags crisis had reinforced his belief that an Opposition at Stormont is essential to “give groups a clear way to express themselves in the political arena because that’s just not there at the moment”.