UUP leadership hopefuls must decide within few weeks

Robin Swann has hinted at a possible leadership bid

Robin Swann has hinted at a possible leadership bid

Whoever ends up vying for the leadership of the UUP following Mike Nesbitt’s departure has a couple of weeks to make their mind up.

A decision looks set to be made on the second Saturday in April – but at this stage there is little clarity on who will put their name forward.

Doug Beattie seemed to rule himself out of running on Friday

Doug Beattie seemed to rule himself out of running on Friday

The one candidate who is definitively known to be considering a leadership bid is Robin Swann – MLA for North Antrim since 2011, and seen as a traditionalist.

He was a guest on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show, and host Mark Carruthers recalled that Mr Swann had said on Friday that his possible bid for party leadership “would be up to Mrs Swann”.

He said yesterday no decision had been reached on whether he should apply, but he added: “I’m not ruling myself out at this stage.”

The News Letter tried to contact Mr Swann many times on Sunday, but there was no response.

Steve Aiken refused to say whether he was considering standing

Steve Aiken refused to say whether he was considering standing

Other sources have suggested that possibly Doug Beattie (MLA for Upper Bann and previously a Portadown councillor, who is regarded as being more on the liberal wing of the party), could stand.

Mr Beattie was quoted as telling the Belfast Telegraph on Friday – just after Mr Nesbitt quit – that he had no intention “at this stage” of standing for leader, and that he was ruling it out “for now”.

The News Letter also tried repeatedly to contact Mr Beattie, without success.

Another rumour was that potentially Steve Aiken might consider putting his name forward. The MLA for South Antrim and party economy spokesman first attained elected office 10 months ago, and is also seen as leaning towards the liberal side of the party.

Mr Aiken did return the paper’s calls – but would not answer directly whether he planned to stand, instead referring the paper on to the party’s press office.

Tom Elliott, MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and an ex-leader of the UUP, was asked if any of the MLAs above looked like front-runners.

He said: “Not necessarily. Obviously whenever [we] hear for sure who’s going to put their name in, you’d have a better consideration.”

He was also asked if he is considering running.

“No. No, I’m not,” he said. “I’m not considering it, no.”

Asked if he would rule it out completely, he said: “Well, I’m certainly not considering it. I’ve been there before.”

On the subject of whether a new leader could be a non-MLA (such as someone from Westminster), he said: “Obviously, from a practical point of view, if the Assembly is up and running it’s more practical to have someone who is in the Assembly. Though it’s certainly not definitive.”

As to whether the party should move in a different direction – perhaps a more conservative one – Mr Elliott said: “That’s a bigger debate for the party. And you’ll appreciate, I’ll have that debate within the party before I have it in the press.”

Party chairman Reg Empey – another ex-leader– declined to comment on leadership candidates, because as party chairman he will ultimately be presiding over the election process.

However, he said that a decision is likely to be made at a party meeting on April 8.

All UUP members have a vote, which they must cast in person .

The deadline for candidates to apply is March 24.

They must be seconded by 35 members, spread over nine constituencies.

The winner must get an absolute majority (that is, over 50% of the vote).

If there are multiple candidates running, and no-one achieves a 50%-plus share, then the lowest-polling contender is eliminated and another vote is taken.

The location of the April 8 meeting is not known yet.

There is no maximum number of candidates.

Asked about the rumours of who may be standing, Lord Empey said: “I won’t make any comment about who may or may not be in the running...

“I’ll be remaining neutral in all of this.”