AN Ulster Unionist veteran said that he gave up a paid job with the party to join the DUP, such was his disillusionment at the party under Mike Nesbitt’s leadership.
Fred Cobain, who 18 months ago was the UUP’s chief whip in the Assembly and was a UUP party officer for the last nine months, became the latest in a lengthening line of senior UUP figures who have quit the party over the last year, warning that he thinks the party’s problems “can only get worse”.
The former MLA for North Belfast, who lost his seat to the DUP in the 2011 election, was unveiled as the DUP’s newest recruit at Stormont on Monday.
On Monday night the 66-year-old former Belfast Lord Mayor, who entered elected politics as a Belfast councillor in 1985, told the News Letter that as a party officer he had seen the party “treading water” and said that he was “just disheartened and disillusioned”.
He said: “I’ve been thinking about this for quite a long time; it’s obviously not a decision I’ve taken lightly.
“I just feel that the Ulster Unionist Party is politically exhausted.
“They’ve no new ideas, or certainly no big ideas. And the people who are supposed to be giving leadership — the Assembly team —are just riven with personal and policy differences which they can’t seem to agree on.”
Mr Cobain, as a supporter of unionist unity, clashed several times with Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea over recent years. Two years ago Mr McCrea accused him of “dancing to the DUP’s tune” for advocating an electoral pact with the DUP.
But Mr Cobain said: “I don’t often agree with Basil McCrea but I agree with him to this extent: I think the party has just lost its way.”
DUP leader Peter Robinson, who unveiled Mr Cobain in Stormont’s Great Hall on Monday afternoon, said: “Fred has a wealth of political experience having been both a member of Belfast City Council for over 20 years and also a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
He added: “I know Fred will be a valuable member of the DUP and will have an important role to play in the party as we continue to move Northern Ireland forward.”
One senior UUP source contacted the News Letter on Monday to claim that Mr Cobain had been offered a salaried position by the DUP.
However, the former trade unionist said that was nonsense and said that he had actually given up money to leave the UUP.
“I was working for the UUP. I left a job in the UUP,” he said.
When asked if he had a new job to go to with the DUP, he said: “The point I’m making to you is: I was actually in a job being paid by the UUP. I was so disillusioned I left the job. I have no job.
“Financially I’m worse off now than I was before.
“If that’s what people in the party are thinking — that this is about a job — I had a job and I left a job because I was disillusioned; that’s how strongly I felt about it.
“The DUP haven’t promised me a job; I’m not getting paid by the DUP; I didn’t leave the UUP to join the DUP for money. I didn’t do that.”
Mr Cobain has proposed a series of unionist unity deals with the DUP over recent years and brokered an agreement with the DUP in North Belfast ahead of the election in which he lost his Assembly seat.
But the Carrickfergus man said that he could not say whether the Unionist Forum jointly chaired by Mr Robinson and Mr Nesbitt would lead to an electoral pact.
“I’ve always been in favour of the unionist unity stuff. I don’t get this liberal agenda — as far as I’m concerned, I would be a liberal, I believe in communities working together and all of that stuff; shared space is a big issue for people...I don’t differ in that sense but fundamentally, I’ve always been in favour of unionist unity.”
Mr Cobain, who said that he had spent a lifetime in the party, said of his move: “I think this is the best step for me. I’ve been a loyal member of the Ulster Unionist Party but I just personally feel disheartened and disillusioned and see no point in carrying on.”
He added: “You can’t be in a party for as long as I have and made friendships the way that I have and not be sad. But at the end of the day you have to do what you think is right and I think this is right for me.”
When asked how he thought the unionist parties had handled the flags issue in Belfast, the political veteran said: “You know as well as I do that until you get 26 people [in the council] putting their hands up, the flag’s not going up.
“That’s perfectly obvious to everyone. We live in a democracy; you don’t get it all your own way.
“But there were opportunities to reverse that and there still are.”
Last year David McNarry stood down after being disciplined over comments calling for unionist unity. He is now leader of UKIP in the Assembly.
Last August UUP peer Lord Ken Maginnis quit after being disciplined over comments about gay marriage.
In October UUP MLA John McCallister was sacked as deputy leader after warning that the party was “sleepwalking into unionist unity” while the party whip has also been removed from Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea last month after he said that the Union Flag should be flown from Belfast City Hall on designated days.