UUP battle hots up

BASIL McCrea has pledged that he will only enter the Stormont executive as first minister, as rival Tom Elliott accused him of "low-down comments".

Mr McCrea will set out a radical vision to re-shape the UUP in a speech in Belfast on Monday – but last night he was locked in an increasingly personal tussle with his fellow leadership contender.

Mr Elliott said that Mr McCrea had "rocked me to my foundations" with "intensely personal and unfounded" criticism.

The News Letter understands that Mr McCrea is to instigate annual UUP membership-wide "votes of confidence" in every Ulster Unionist MLA, if elected leader.

Among five pledges to be set out today, Mr McCrea will also promise "robust" discipline, with proposals to dismiss the entire officer team and make it compulsory for MLAs to attend party executive meetings.

But last night discipline in the party was threatening to break down over the leadership race, with the Elliott and McCrea camps launching increasingly outspoken attacks on each other.

Mr Elliott called on his rival to apologise following Mr McCrea's comments about Mr Elliott's refusal to attend GAA matches or Gay Pride events, saying that "I have to question, for the first time, Basil McCrea as a colleague."

He warned: "With this type of campaign I fail to understand how we can have any semblance of a united party at the end of this leadership campaign."

The Fermanagh assemblyman hit out after Mr McCrea suggested that Mr Elliott was being disrespectful to PSNI GAA captain Peadar Heffron by refusing to attend GAA matches.

"I was simply stunned when I read Basil's statement," Mr Elliott said.

"I could not believe he would use a victim to further his own political ambitions, but to get his (Peadar Heffron's) name wrong as well – and more than once – is just too much.

"I sat with Basil and the party chairman on Thursday and thought we had agreed there would be no public attacks of a personal nature in this leadership campaign.

"Twenty four hours later, he rocked me to my foundations with the intensely personal and unfounded nature of his criticisms.

"When I heard what Basil was saying about me, I had to pull the car into a lay-by, and all I could think about was attending the funerals of colleagues from throughout the community who were murdered by the IRA."

Responding last night, Mr McCrea said: "Tom Elliott is on the wrong side of this argument but I will not go negative on a party colleague."

Launching his leadership bid in Belfast's Merchant Hotel today, Mr McCrea will unveil five pledges:

- No ministry until party success assured – "I intend to lead the party on the basis that the leader of the UUP will be the first minister. Until this goal is achieved I will not accept any other ministry."

- The UUP will take the education ministry as first choice – "The party will fight the next assembly elections on the basis of 'A vote for the UUP, is a vote to remove Ruane'. We will remove the possibility of Caitriona Ruane doing yet more damage to the education system."

- No electoral pacts with the DUP or anybody else – "We must convince those that no longer vote that there is something to vote for. We will stand on our own two feet, we will offer our own policies, we will select our own candidates."

- All MLAs will face a vote of confidence at the end of each year – "All members will be given an opportunity to express satisfaction of all UUP MLAs by secret ballot. The results will be made public."

- Discipline robustly enforced – "There are too many organs of the party. The party officer team will go. The executive will be revamped to include all MLAs. Attendance at executive meetings for elected representatives will be compulsory."

In hard-hitting comments aimed at senior party figures, Mr McCrea will say: "For far too long this party, the party for all its faults we cherish has been choked by a culture of cronyism, of rule-bending intellectual poverty.

"We have been dogged by would-be leaders; behind the scenes, string-pulling unelected leaders and responsible-to-no-one leaders.

"Our message to the public has been blocked by too many voices and too many self-promotional messages.

"It has blanked out the message when it comes to the screen of public opinion."

Tonight Mr Elliott's campaign manager, Mike Nesbitt will be one of seven individuals hoping to be selected as one of three (eventually to be reduced to two) candidates to run in Strangford in next year's assembly election.

Veteran UUP MLA David McNarry, who is also backing Tom Elliott, is also standing, as is businessman Bill McKendry, party officer Phillip Smith, former Ards mayor Jim Fletcher, long-standing Ards councillor Ronnie Ferguson and Andrew Cooper.