ULSTER Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt has launched a sharp counter-attack on MLAs John McCallister and Basil McCrea who quit the party after Nigel Lutton was chosen as the unity candidate in Mid Ulster to fight for the seat vacated by Martin McGuinness.
Reflecting on the unanimous selection vote for the Portadown undertaker at Thursday’s night meeting of the UUP constituency, Mr Nesbitt said he found it “a matter of huge regret that certain individuals found it necessary to attack the party on the airwaves”.
The UUP leader resolutely refused to comment on what Mr McCrea (Lagan Valley) and Mr McCallister (South Down) intended to do in future, with speculation mounting that they were linking up with East Londonderry Independent David McClarty to form a new party.
Nor would he specifically rule out an electoral pact for the 2015 Westminster poll in the marginal constituencies, two in Belfast, Fermanagh-South Tyrone and Upper Bann entering the frame – “I’m not commenting on that,” was all he would say. “There has been no discussion on a pact. I’m concentrating on Mid Ulster 2013.”
He conceded that, with a two-thirds nationalist-republican majority in the constituency, the unity candidate faced an uphill task. Outgoing MP Mr McGuinness attracted 52 per cent of the vote in 2011, SDLP’s Tony Quinn gained 14 per cent, and three diverse unionists totalled 32 per cent – Ian McCrea (DUP), Sandra Overend (UUP) and Walter Millar (TUV). Francie Molloy is the SF candidate this time, with Patsy McGlone running for SDLP.
Mr Nesbitt said: “If Basil and John want a pluralist, non-sectarian party, based on team players, then there isn’t a cigarette paper’s width between them and me. But they are not team players, and I want a large team, devoted to the party. We have lost two, but so be it.
“With regard to comments made by John McCallister, if he is resigning on principle, why did he not resign over the selection of an agreed candidate in Rodney Connor in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, at the 2011 Westminster General Election? (which Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew won by four votes). If he was unhappy with policies, why, when I gave him the opportunity 11 months ago to shape policy via a Constitutional Commission, did he not bother?
“I reject Basil’s claim that, in my leadership campaign, I advocated “no big idea”. I said there was no quick fix and there was no “big idea” beyond a long hard slog on the ground. Hard work was the big idea. As for Basil’s claim that there are no policies, he appears to have completely missed my 2012 conference speech in which a wide range of policies was outlined.
“Basil also claimed there was no forum to discuss and debate policy and direction, yet he was the only MLA not to attend the last ‘away-day’ which is the forum for such debate and discussion. The party reviewed key policies in 2012 and neither John nor Basil attended internal meetings or contributed in any meaningful way.
“Indeed, John attended more Northern Ireland Conservative events over that period than he attended Ulster Unionist reviews. My vision for a revitalised, pluralist, non-sectarian progressive political party remains undimmed. That party is the Ulster Unionist Party.”
On the specific choice of Nigel Lutton as the unity candidate, Mr Nesbitt said that UUP and DUP were equal partners in the selection process: “As far as UUP is concerned, our political representatives – MLAs, councillors and party workers – consulted the electorate of the area, who are fed up with 16 years of an absentee, abstentionist Sinn Fein MP, and wanted a candidate to representative all the people.”
Mr Lutton’s father Eric had just retired at the age of 39 as an RUC reservist, and was murdered by the IRA in May 1979, when Nigel was eight years old. In 2007, Upper Bann MP David Simpson used Parliamentary privilege to name Francie Molloy – the SF candidate in the March 7 election – as one of those involved in the murder, a claim Mr Molloy has denied.
Mr Nesbitt said: “It’s a sad fact of life that few will recall the name of Eric Lutton, or many of the other members of the security forces – Protestant and Catholic – murdered in the Troubles. There is, I’m sad to say, a hierarchy of victims – like Bloody Sunday, the Finucanes.
“The unionist people of Mid Ulster feel that inequality profoundly. Many unionists have not been coming out to vote, and a unity candidate in this situation is the best way of maximising the vote.”
There were four candidates up for selection at the meeting in Moneymore. And Mr Nesbitt underlined that the vote was unanimous, as was the vote at a separate meeting of DUP.
“This was the decision of the association,” he said. “You also have to consider that victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer has dropped out, and that Jim Allister of TUV has given Nigel his approval, which shows he has wide support and respect.
“This isn’t a pact between UUP and DUP as such. It reflects the feeling of the unionist community who want to maximise the pro-union vote.”
Mr Nesbitt said there was much work to be done in the UUP
“Perhaps we have to shrink to grow, but I became leader with a view to staying for at least two parliamentary terms and my vision is to expand the party and again make it bigger than DUP.
“There are many differences – especially in education policies – and there is no prospect of the two parties fusing.”