FOR just the briefest of moments on Thursday night, Nigel Lutton was able to bask in the glory of his new status as the single unionist candidate for the Mid Ulster by-election.
Not only had he the unanimous endorsement of the respective Ulster Unionist and DUP constituency associations and their party leaders, but he had also received the approval of Jim Allister’s TUV and arch sceptic Willie Frazer, the victims’ campaigner who himself had been poised to enter the Mid Ulster race.
It was the shortest of honeymoons for the son of a murdered RUC reservist. Within a matter of hours South Down MLA John McCallister had resigned from the Ulster Unionists over the issue and Lagan Valley’s Basil McCrea swiftly followed suit yesterday morning.
But if Mr Lutton was torn over inadvertently creating a fresh storm with the UUP, he hid it well yesterday in Portadown.
While stressing his regret that Mr McCallister and Mr McCrea had resigned, he believes there is no future in yet another unionist party.
He said: “It’s heartbreaking to see John McCallister and Basil go but from listening to the people on the ground, who want unionist cooperation, it’s hard to think that me standing as a unionist candidate will do anything but strengthen the Union.
“It’s about building for the future and this is an example of what unionism can do. I wish both of them all the best but I honestly don’t think a new unionist party will come to anything.
“In my opinion everyone and every constituency wants unionist cooperation. How can anyone stand in the way of this? It’s been unanimous. Both constituency associations supported myself as a candidate.”
Between now and election day, much of the media frenzy may turn to Mr Lutton’s tussle with Francie Molloy, the veteran politician who Sinn Fein want to succeed Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness as Mid Ulster MP.
In 2007, DUP MP David Simpson used parliamentary privilege to name Mr Molloy as having been suspected of involvement in the killing of Mr Lutton’s father Eric, who was shot dead by the IRA in May 1979. No one has ever been convicted of the killing and Mr Molloy has always vigorously denied any involvement.
Mr Lutton insisted the prospect of facing the Sinn Fein man at the ballot box was not an influence on his decision to accept overtures from the two main unionist parties earlier this week.
“To be quite honest it would not matter who it was, I would have accepted,” he stressed.
“He is not in my thoughts at all. It’s not about him, it’s not about personal issues, it’s about cooperation and being a single unionist candidate. I was asked to do this because I’m someone who has worked extensively in victims’ issues, and I’m supported by both parties.
“There will be some emotional impact, but I won’t dwell on it. There are mechanisms for dealing with the past with the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and to dwell on your past and seek revenge destroys the victim. You should focus on the future. This is not about me or the past.”
Mr Lutton’s background in victims’ groups traces back to his father’s murder. Eric Lutton, who had resigned from the RUC police reserve just two weeks before his death, was closing the front gates of the Argory National Trust property near Dungannon when two Provisional IRA gunmen opened fire using Belgian FN assault rifles.
“The pain remains, as it does for the thousands of victims,” he continued.
“What happened led me into working with victims. I started off myself helping individual victims in the mid-Ulster ‘murder triangle’ area. It grew from that to working for the cross-community group Wave Trauma Centres.
“I work in the funeral trade and I have counselling skills there. Being a victim myself is what drew me into helping in that field. I’m also not aligned to either party – I’ve too many friends in both parties.”
The election race will be a relatively short one, limiting the strain on Nigel’s health. Several years ago he suffered a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lung that could have killed him.
He said: “There was no pre-empt. It was just bang. I was standing in the kitchen and I got massive chest and arm pain. A man being a man, I refused to go to hospital. But at 4am I didn’t refuse to go because I thought I was having a heart attack. I was unconcerned, everyone around me was panicking, but I was resuscitated. I was in hospital for a fortnight and off work for three months.
“It’s something that will be with me the rest of my life. As long as I take it in my stride I will be OK. I take medication every day and it gets me out of the hoovering.”
Mr Lutton, a former Young Unionist and researcher at Mr Simpson’s DUP constituency office in Portadown, may dream of being an MP, but the maths suggests he is fighting a losing battle.
Only 30 per cent of the Mid Ulster electorate is unionist and despite him having a strong record of representing victims from both sides of the community, it would take a seismic upset for a solidly nationalist constituency to return a unionist on March 7.
But there is a bigger picture here, and that, Mr Lutton says, is delivering a model of unionist cooperation.
He said: “You don’t enter a race to lose. The people have been crying out on the ground for cooperation from all the unionist parties. Each unionist party has a distinct identity, they are monoliths, but they can cooperate too. Is this a future model? It’s certainly an example of what can be done.”
And if Eric Lutton could see his son now, at the forefront of Northern Ireland politics, with almost the entire unionist family uniting behind him, what would he think?
He said: “I think he would be glad to see that his son was liked generally across the spectrum. Hopefully he would be proud of me.”