EMBATTLED Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has played down the significance of two high-profile resignations during a dramatic 12-hour period.
Mr Nesbitt has again been forced to defend his leadership after MLAs John McCallister and Basil McCrea quit the party in quick succession.
The two liberal unionists are now expected to unite other former UUP supporters – and possibly some pro-Union Alliance members – under a new pluralist banner.
Announcing his decision to quit the party on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan show yesterday morning, Mr McCrea said he had been “left with no option” after a decision to field a joint candidate with the DUP in the Mid Ulster by-election.
The Lagan Valley MLA said: “This is the wrong decision for the Ulster Unionist Party, it is the wrong decision for the people of Northern Ireland, and I will not stand by it. I will not stay in a party that cannot stand on its own two feet.”
Less than 12 hours earlier, South Down MLA Mr McCallister told BBC television show The View that he could no longer remain in a party pursuing closer links with the DUP.
“I disagree strongly about the principle of unionist unity and I don’t want to be a part of that,” he said.
Commenting on the agreed candidate to contest the assembly election next month – Nigel Lutton whose RUC reservist father was murdered by the IRA in 1979 – Mr McCallister said: “It is nothing personal about Nigel. It is not personal for me. It is about the principle.”
Speaking to the News Letter yesterday, he added: “What we are doing has reduced this purely to a sectarian head count – let’s see if a combined unionist can out-poll the Shinners.
“You will probably destroy the SDLP vote in Mid Ulster and you will completely sectarianise the electorate. Unionist unity drives nationalist unity and you re-sectarianise our politics in Northern Ireland.”
Elaborating on his own position yesterday afternoon, Mr McCrea said: “We haven’t said definitely that we’re starting up a new party. We’ve just said that we are going to offer ourselves to the electorate so it might just be John and me as two independents that are together.”
Mr McCrea also said there was no prospect of resigning his seat and seeking a mandate as an independent before the next Assembly election.
“We like to think we know what our voters would want and we will be listening to them. Our intention is to go forward with a clear agenda, and that we will face the electorate at the appropriate time,” he said.
“I would also say that I haven’t changed my views one iota from when I stood the last time. I’m not a shrinking violet – people know where I stand, what I think.”
Commenting on speculation that the two men held moderate views similar to Alliance and could join the existing middle-ground party, he said: “We are very firm in what we are standing for and why we made the decisions. What we are actually looking for is the best way forward to communicate those visions and principles to the electorate. At the moment we are not in anybody else’s party.”
He said he anticipated finding political allies across a range of parties and added: “Socially and economically there are huge benefits to the Union which are not being made clear to people, and the biggest risk to the Union is that the people in the rest of the United Kingdom reject this part of the world.”
Lagan Valley Ulster Unionist Association said Basil McCrea’s resignation was “disappointing”.
Association chairman Cllr Brian Bloomfield said: “This is greatly disappointing as many people in the association have supported Mr McCrea since the beginning of his career.
“However, despite this disappointment I would like to thank Mr McCrea for his service to the party and the constituency,” he said.
Former UUP member David McClarty is widely expected to join McCrea and McCallister in a new alliance of moderate unionists at Stormont.
The independent East Londonderry MLA confirmed last night that he, Basil McCrea and John McCallister were planning to meet soon and map the way ahead for disaffected members of a party “that seems determined to commit hari-kari on the sword of tribal politics”.
Mr McClarty said: “Whether it’s a new grouping or a new party remains to be seen. But the decision to select a unity candidate in Mid Ulster, where the unionists haven’t a prayer of winning – what with a two-thirds nationalist-republican majority – seems a strange way of doing things.”
“DUP espoused the ‘never, never, never’ principles before they were elected, and then things suddenly changed. We can’t trust them, and UUP have now become the fly being invited into the parlour by the DUP spider.”
Writing in today’s News Letter, columnist Alex Kane said the UUP membership had sent a “clear message” then they voted overwhelming to elect Mike Nesbitt as party leader.
“They didn’t want any more risk-taking strategies (like McCallister’s Opposition option): they wanted a media-savvy, high-profile leader who would be coherent and articulate. It didn’t matter that he had ‘no big idea or quick fixes’, they just wanted someone who sounded and looked good and who could appeal to that swathe of the pro-Union family who had disconnected and stopped voting,” he said.
Mr Nesbitt said he found it “a matter of huge regret that certain individuals found it necessary to attack the party on the airwaves”.
“If Basil and John are talking about 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 far from being team players, and I want a large team, devoted to the party. We have lost two, but so be it,” he said.
“My vision for a revitalised, pluralist, non-sectarian progressive political party remains undimmed. That party is the Ulster Unionist Party.”
On the 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 MP, and wanted a candidate to represent all the people.”
Commenting on his selection as the agreed unionist candidate for Mid Ulster, Nigel Lutton 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.”