Two DUP councillors, pushed out of the party after speaking out about an alleged attempt by a senior Stormont adviser to bully one of them into changing her vote on a multi- million pound contract, have joined the UUP.
In news which continues a dreadful week for an under-pressure Peter Robinson following the UUP’s decision to quit the Executive over IRA involvement in murder, Councillors John and Jenny Palmer said that an important factor in their decision had been the “courage” shown by the UUP.
The development comes amid unease from some DUP members over the party’s unclear response to police intelligence that IRA members murdered Kevin McGuigan last month. Peter Robinson has heavily indicated that he wants to stay in the Executive.
The Palmers — who quit the DUP in May after the party moved to discipline Mrs Palmer — have given a boost to UUP leader Mike Nesbitt in what has been the DUP’s strongest area of Northern Ireland, Lagan Valley.
More than two years ago, Mrs Palmer dramatically alleged in a BBC Spotlight programme that the then DUP minister Nelson McCausland’s special adviser, Stephen Brimstone, had attempted to pressure her to change her vote at a key Housing Executive board meeting discussing an £8m-a-year contract for Red Sky.
She said that she told him “I don’t think I can do that”, to which he responded: “The party comes first – you do what you’re told. Otherwise there is no point in [you] being on the board”.
Despite an exhaustive Stormont inquiry — with which Mr Brimstone refused to fully cooperate — vindicating Mrs Palmer and recording that Mr McCausland had acted inappropriately (DUP members of the committee denounced it as a ‘witch hunt’ and produced their own version) earlier this year, the DUP moved to discipline Mrs Palmer.
Last night, in a joint statement issued through the UUP, the Palmers said: “We have considered our options over the past few months and we have decided to join the Ulster Unionist Party.
“It has been like returning to the family home again. I would like to thank all our family, friends and supporters for their words of encouragement over the past year or more. It meant a lot and we will be forever grateful.
“We are re-energised, just like the Ulster Unionist Party, and we are looking forward to this new beginning in politics.
“Something that was an important factor in our decision was the courage shown by the Ulster Unionist Party. They have led by example during what is a shocking state of affairs. We look forward to playing our part in the Ulster Unionist team.”
The defections bring the UUP’s total number of councillors to 89, while the DUP now has 128.
On Lisburn and Castlereagh Council - made up of two councils where the DUP was once totally dominant - the party now has 18 of the 40 councillors, while the UUP now has 10 councillors.
Mr Nesbitt said: “The integrity of Jenny and John Palmer has been clear to see in recent months and I am delighted they have made their decision to join the Ulster Unionist Party.
“Elected representatives have to deal with the rough and tumble of politics on a daily basis, but people like Sammy Wilson went way beyond the pale during the Social Development Committee evidence sessions.
“I have a great admiration for how Jenny and John stood their ground during what was clearly a deeply difficult and testing time for them.
“We have gained two very capable councillors today. We are in growth mode and this is an exciting time for the Ulster Unionist Party.
“Let’s see who else makes a move to a party determined to put the country first and do what’s right for Northern Ireland.”
Earlier this year, when she quit the DUP, Mrs Palmer said: “I certainly won’t hang around for them to discipline me for telling the truth”, and added: “The party has been good to us... it’s individuals within this party that are bringing this party down.”
The committee said it “believes that Mr Brimstone was deliberately evasive in his answers to the point of obstructing the committee in carrying out its statutory function.”
The DUP moved to discipline Mrs Palmer after she revealed drafts of an apology from Mr Brimstone which had been put together following a meeting involving the First Minister.
Ultimately, Mrs Palmer said that Mr Brimstone — who has denied any wrongdoing but refused to be interviewed about the affair — would not accept the wording of the apology.
The party said that she should not have released internal party documents.
But Mrs Palmer argued that she could only clear her name by doing so, given that they implied that at one point Mr Brimstone had accepted that at least some of his actions had been wrong.
Shortly after the publication of the Stormont inquiry into the affair, Mr Brimstone was promoted to work as a special adviser to the First Minister.
In that role, he is paid £83,657.