A “non-partisan” agreed candidate to challenge Sinn Fein in West Tyrone would provide “a voice for victims” following the resignation of MP Barry McElduff, the UUP leader has said.
Robin Swann said such an agreement between the other parties was the only chance of overturning a large Sinn Fein majority in the by-election that will now be called.
Abstentionist Mr McElduff, who had already been suspended by his party for three months, resigned on Monday, saying that remaining in the job would have impeded efforts to forge reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
He caused outrage last week when posed online with a Kingsmill-branded loaf on his head on the anniversary of the 1976 Kingsmills massacre.
Mr McElduff, who is known for his light-hearted social media contributions, was filmed walking around a shop with a Kingsmill loaf on his head, asking where the store kept the bread.
Announcing his decision to stand down, Mr McElduff reiterated his insistence that he had not meant the video as a reference to the sectarian murders of 10 Protestant workmen by republican paramilitaries near the south Armagh village.
“It is with great sadness that, after more than 30 years as an active Sinn Fein member and public representative I am tendering my resignation as MP for West Tyrone,” he said.
“The reason I am doing so is because of the consequences of the Twitter video which has caused such controversy over the last week.”
He said his greatest regret was the “deep and unnecessary hurt” his video had caused the Kingsmills families. “I again offer my profound apology to those families and to the wider victims community,” he added.
Mr Swann welcomed Mr McElduff’s resignation, but said it “should have happened last week”.
Mr Swann said: “This is a day when a Sinn Fein member of parliament has done the right thing. His resignation was long overdue. His position was absolutely untenable given the hurt and pain inflicted on the Kingsmills victims’ families and the sole survivor Alan Black. This has been a horrendous experience for them.”
The UUP leader added: “Given the hurt that has been caused to victims by Mr McElduff’s actions I think it is important that any by-election provides them with a voice. I am therefore calling for a non-partisan candidate who will be a voice for victims to contest this seat against Sinn Fein.
“The condemnation of Barry McElduff’s deeply offensive actions has come from across the community. If a candidate emerges that allows cross-community support to coalesce around, it would send a strong message that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated.”
Sinn Fein took nearly 51% of the vote in last year’s general election with the nearest candidate – Tom Buchanan of the DUP – more than 10,000 votes behind.
Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said Mr McElduff had resigned because of the “unintended hurt” he had caused.
“Barry recognises that this controversy and his continuing role in public office is compounding the distress to the victims of Kingsmills, and again offers his profound apology to those families and to the wider victims community,” said Mrs O’Neill.
The extent of Mr McElduff’s original punishment by Sinn Fein – a three-month suspension while still being paid – was widely criticised by unionists.
He resigned hours after Mr Black gave a powerful interview on RTE radio in which he accused the MP of celebrating the Kingsmills deaths.
The politician said he realised many people did not believe his explanation for the video.
Mrs O’Neill later defended her handling of the affair and rejected the suggestion the initial punishment had been weak.
“I believe the action I took last week was proportionate,” she said outside Sinn Fein’s offices on the Falls Road in west Belfast.
“Barry did cause hurt, he didn’t intend to do so. I accepted last Monday and I still accept today, as does Barry, that his tweet was ill advised, it was ill judged but he did not intend to cause hurt.
“And in recognition of the controversy that it has sparked over the last week Barry has now decided to resign so he is not a barrier toward reconciliation and I accept that as the best way forward.”