STRAINS within unionism intensified last night after the Ulster Unionists said they would support a unity candidate in the Mid Ulster Westminster by-election.
The party pledged to stand down if the DUP did so also, so long as any agreed community candidate had “Ulster Unionist values”.
The party then suggested that Lord Bannside step forward for the task, following his recent News Letter column on the border poll, which the UUP said demonstrated his “new-found support” for the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
Meanwhile, estranged UUP MLA Basil McCrea – who has had the party whip withdrawn at Stormont in a disciplinary dispute – called on the Ulster Unionists to explain how fielding an agreed candidate with the DUP in Mid Ulster would not be a move towards unionist unity.
Mr McCrea told the News Letter: “My position is that unionist unity is not good for either the Ulster Unionist Party or the people of Northern Ireland as a whole, and the party will need to take particular care to explain why such a move would not be interpreted as unionist unity, what the benefits are to the party and to the electorate as a whole.”
Martin McGuinness has stepped down as MP for the constituency as part of Sinn Fein’s move to end double-jobbing, triggering a by-election.
At a meeting of the Mid Ulster branch of the UUP attended by Mike Nesbitt, members decided to seek an agreed candidate for the by-election with the DUP.
Afterwards Mr Nesbitt said: “We agreed that, whatever happens, there will be a candidate with Ulster Unionist values standing in the by-election, but it may not be a party member.
“If the DUP stand their own candidate we will definitely contest the election, but if they support a community candidate who has Ulster Unionist values, we will go for that.
“Both parties are trawling for a community candidate who would appeal to the broad unionist community and represent the constituency in Westminster.”
Yesterday a party press officer emailed to confirm this position, adding: “We will only support a candidate with Ulster Unionist values.
“Given Ian Paisley’s new found support for the Belfast Agreement as outlined in his News Letter column on Saturday, perhaps he would like to throw his hat in the ring!”
Lord Bannside did not refer to the Belfast Agreement in his column, but wrote about the importance of the removal of the territorial claim on Northern Ireland and the principle of consent, which the deal enshrined.
Mr McCrea claimed that the UUP needed to explain the benefit to the party in not fielding its own candidate, “when one might have assumed that there was an opportunity to advance pure Ulster Unionist policies”.
He added that members of the party had “repeatedly assured” him that “unity is not on the cards”.
When asked if this would affect his position within the party Mr McCrea said: “I’m obviously watching how things develop.”
Earlier, Mr Nesbitt said, “I welcome Dr Paisley’s comments in his weekly News Letter column recognising that the principle of consent secured Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. This will remain the case as long as people continue to vote for it and for pro-Union parties. The Belfast Agreement placed the future of the Union in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland.
“I also welcome Dr Paisley’s acknowledgement that the removal of the Republic’s claim over Northern Ireland from the Irish Constitution was ‘hard won’ which he said ‘played no small part in disarming the political justification of the Irish Republican Army’s reign of terror’.
“Gradually we are seeing a recognition by former staunch opponents, that the Belfast Agreement was not the sell-out some claimed, but was in fact strategically the right thing to do. All who sit in the current Northern Ireland Assembly are in effect operating the Belfast Agreement. And I welcome that realism.”