DANNY Kennedy has set out the reasons why he shocked his supporters yesterday by bowing out of the Ulster Unionist leadership race hours before the deadline for nominations.
Mr Kennedy, who in the wake of Tom Elliott’s decision to leave his post at the top of the UUP was widely regarded as the favourite to succeed him, yesterday confirmed the mounting speculation over recent days that he would not stand.
However, the regional development minister made clear that although he had spoken to candidates John McCallister and Mike Nesbitt, he had not agreed a deal with either.
Mr Nesbitt is known to have made several offers to Mr Kennedy assuring him that he would keep his position as minister if he was to back the former journalist for the UUP leadership.
It is not believed that Mr McCallister, who unlike Mr Kennedy wants to see the UUP leave the Executive and enter opposition, offered a deal to Mr Kennedy.
It had been widely expected that Mr Kennedy, if he stood aside, would do so to back Mr Nesbitt. However, in yesterday’s statement announcing his decision not to run it was noticeable that he wished both of the candidates well but gave no indication of support for Mr Nesbitt.
When asked whether that meant that he would not be supporting either candidate, Mr Kennedy told the News Letter: “I want to be clear that I have spoken to both candidates to acquaint them of my decision.
“I want to also confirm that there was no deal. I’ve had discussions both with John and with Mike, conducted in a very good spirit.
“I think the suggestion of a grubby deal as I exit centre left or exit centre right or whatever at this stage would not be appropriate and would damage my integrity.
“I will wait the judgment of the party on the 31st but clearly I want to see the party move forward in a united approach – whatever gifts or whatever services I have to offer to whomever leads the party, I will be happy to do so.”
Last night Mr Nesbitt declined to comment on Mr Kennedy’s decision to stand aside.
However, Mr McCallister said that while he had spoken to Mr Kennedy he had never offered a deal because of their policy differences on entering opposition.
“The only discussions which I’ve had were about keeping the campaign good-natured, which I think we all agree on.
“I just fired out my campaign on Tuesday and said opposition is where the party should go.
“That is why I’m determined to see this through because I just don’t agree with Mike’s analysis of where we should go.”
In an interview with the News Letter, Mr Kennedy agreed that his view that the UUP should stay in the Executive rather than enter opposition was in line with Mr Nesbitt’s views but would not go on to say that he would therefore back, or urge his supporters to back, the Strangford MLA.
He added: “I would also say that the leadership election will, of course, uncover other issues and so we need to wait and see what happens.
“Certainly the strategy of leaving the Executive at this point in time to go into opposition is not one that I subscribe to.”
Mr Kennedy said that in his view, as the sole UUP minister in the Executive he had made “significant decisions for the betterment of people all over Northern Ireland” and said he believed that engaging in “constructive politics” was important for the future stability of Northern Ireland.
In the statement announcing his decision not to stand, Mr Kennedy said that he did not want the leadership election to be “divisive” and so had decided not to stand.
When asked if there were any other, personal, reasons why he had chosen to stand aside, Mr Kennedy said: “No, no. I’ve been in the party for 38 years. It’s a huge privilege and the party has given me enormous opportunities and I’ve served at all levels.
“I want to continue to play a part and I do see that a change is important. But I think that I have a part to play in that. My view is that at this point a divisive or personality-driven leadership campaign would not serve the party well.
“I owe it to the party to put personal ambition after the better interests of the party.”
In his statement announcing that he was not to stand, Mr Kennedy said that he had “received substantial and sufficient support to enter the current leadership race” but added: “However, after careful reflection I have decided that a potentially difficult and divisive leadership election is neither in the interest of the party, or indeed the wider electorate.”
He added: “I can’t sacrifice the future well-being of this party on the altar of personal ambition. I love this party too much and I’ve served it too long to damage it in any way in what could have become either a personality driven leadership campaign or a divisive leadership election.
“The message that was coming from party members as I canvassed their support was that yes there was very strong support for me, as there was for other candidates, but they want the debate conducted in the best tradition and best spirit of the Ulster Unionist Party and if my decision has made a contribution to that today then I’m glad of that.”
Mr Kennedy said that he would not be telling either of the other two candidates to stand aside and said that if both remain to the end and debate the issues facing the party “perhaps that is a healthy thing and would give a sense of direction to the party”.
l The UUP has asked us to point out that several members of staff at the front of Stormont while Mike Nesbitt’s campaign was being launched on Thursday were there to observe, as they would at any other launch, not to indicate support for a candidate.