THE last unionist MP to hold Mid Ulster until its boundaries were redrawn 16 years ago was present yesterday as unionist unity candidate Nigel Lutton got his campaign under way.
William McCrea (pictured), who lost to Martin McGuinness in 1997 by less than 2,000 votes before going on to become MP for South Antrim, was one of several senior unionist figures present at the Electoral Office in Ballymena yesterday morning as Mr Lutton handed in his nomination papers.
Flanked by First Minister Peter Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, Mr Lutton said that the campaign was not just about his father’s murder by the IRA in 1979.
Mr Lutton, who was a member of the Young Unionists until leaving and working as a personal assistant to DUP MP David Simpson, declined to tell reporters which party he now votes for, saying: “I vote on conscience.”
Yesterday it was confirmed that Mr Lutton’s election agent will be UUP General Secretary Colin McCusker, a long-standing personal friend and the person who introduced Mr Lutton’s name as the DUP and UUP searched for a potential unity candidate.
Among those present yesterday, as Mr Lutton handed in his nomination papers, were local DUP MLA Ian McCrea, UUP MLA Sandra Overend, her father and former UUP MLA Billy Armstrong and local members of the UUP and DUP.
Just before Mr Lutton arrived to nominate, the SDLP candidate – former deputy leader and current Mid Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone – visited the office to submit his nomination papers.
Mr Lutton is up against Sinn Fein’s Francie Molloy, the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone and Alliance’s Eric Bullick.
Mr Robinson said: “I am delighted that we have an agreed unionist candidate for Mid Ulster. Nigel is a terrific candidate with a great local knowledge and a heart for the community.
“This election gives the people of Mid Ulster the opportunity to have representation in the House of Commons.
“For 16 years they have had an absentee MP. When important decisions have been made in Parliament, the people of Mid Ulster have not had a say. This election gives them the opportunity to change this situation.
“I wish Nigel every success in the campaign. It has been great to hear about the level of support he has been receiving from right across the community since his selection was announced.”
Mr Nesbitt said that he was delighted to be able to support Mr Lutton in person yesterday.
“As I’ve previously said, Nigel is a man of enormous integrity and I would wholeheartedly call on the people of Mid Ulster to come out and support Nigel on March 7.
“Nigel will be a strong unionist voice at Westminster and will be a full-time politician.”
Local UUP MLA Sandra Overend said: “I want to give Nigel – who was unanimously endorsed by the Mid Ulster Ulster Unionist Association – my full support and I look forwad to supporting Nigel in his campaign in the coming weeks.”
However, Alliance chief whip Stewart Dickson rounded on Mr Nesbitt for his comments in yesterday’s News Letter where he said that he saw no reason why Roman Catholics – and even nationalists – would not vote for Mr Lutton.
Mr Dickson, an East Antrim MLA, said: “I do not think anybody is convinced by these bizarre comments from Mike Nesbitt. There is no way that a unionist unity candidate can achieve cross-community support.
“By definition, a unionist unity candidate is the exact opposite of a cross-community candidate. The UUP’s actions are intensifying divisions. They are not helping to build a shared future.
“When he became leader, Mike Nesbitt claimed that he would be able to appeal to people beyond the UUP’s traditional voter base. However, by supporting a joint unionist candidate and getting involved in the tribal Unionist Forum, he has demonstrated that his party is still only for one part of the community.”