IN FULL: Robbie Butler out of UUP leadership race

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UUP leadership candidate Robbie Butler declared tonight that he would not be vying with his friend Doug Beattie to lead the UUP.

He said that “personal ambition must always come second to doing what is right for Northern Ireland”.

The resignation of UUP chief Steve Aiken, 10 days after DUP leader Arlene Foster was forced to quit, threw the leadership of political unionism into the air.

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Formal nominations for UUP party leadership posts opened yesterday at 9am and close at noon on Monday, May 17.

Robbie ButlerRobbie Butler
Robbie Butler

Whilst there is still time for other contenders to enter the running, Mr Butler’s departure from the race (having touted himself as a candidate but never having formally entered) leaves Mr Beattie in a commanding position.

Whilst the DUP has only ever had three leaders in its 50 year history, the UUP has had nine over the same half-century period – five of them since 2005, when David Trimble stepped down.

Although Mr Beattie has been arguably the more prominent of the two MLAs (thanks in large part to his military exploits), he and Mr Butler actually had almost identical journeys into the world of politics.

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Decorated former soldier Mr Beattie has been a politician since 2014.

In that year, he won a seat on Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon District Council with 1,089 first-preference votes, putting him second in his ward of Portadown (but 1,629 votes behind the DUP’s Jonathan Buckley).

Then in the 2016 Assembly election he narrowly snuck in to a seat in Upper Bann, and he remains an MLA in that seat.

Robbie Butler, a former fireman, made a very similar entry into politics.

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Like Mr Beattie he was elected to council (Lisburn and Castlereagh) in 2014, coming second with 1,180 first-preference votes, behind the DUP’s top candidate.

Then in 2016 (again, like Mr Beattie) he was elected relatively easily to an Assembly seat in Lagan Valley, where he remains an MLA today.

Mr Butler’s full statement is below:

“Harold Wilson once quipped that a week is a long time in politics. Given the week that has just passed I can confirm that he was absolutely right. The unexpected news that Steve was standing down as Party Leader caused a ripple effect not only in the Assembly but also within the Ulster Unionist Assembly team. His leadership will be missed, however as an Assembly colleague we will be privileged to continue to have him in the team.

“When I began my political journey my ambition was to do politics in a different way. I hope that people from every background have seen and experienced that, and continue to see the same for as long as I have a role to play.

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“My ambition for being involved in politics, and as an Ulster Unionist, is to make my brand of Unionism the most attractive, ambitious and accountable of political identities. I truly believe that Northern Ireland is an exceptional place, one that I will always call home and seek to use my influence to make that the case for all the people of Northern Ireland.

“Whilst I have given thought to the idea of leading the party at some stage, I did not expect to be considering it this week. Events late last week have caused me to focus my thinking and aspirations for the future of Northern Ireland and my role within the UUP.

“It has been perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of my life to continue my 20-year public service into the political sphere and it is my intention to continue on that path for the foreseeable future; however at this stage, it will not be as the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

“I have been overwhelmed by messages from friends, strangers, constituents, business people and many more with encouragement and well wishes. I thank each and every one of you.

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“The validation and encouragement to stand as a candidate has been truly inspiring, and isn’t wasted. I am even more convinced and determined that there is more that unites us than divides us, and it is in that same manner that it will be my pleasure to serve under the leadership of Doug Beattie MC MLA if he indeed is elected the new leader of the UUP.

“A top team needs players with different but complementary skills and I am convinced that we have the ability, resource and energy to “cut through” as Northern Ireland charts a way out of the Covid-19 pandemic and looks positively towards its second century.

“Please be assured that my few days considering the leadership of this proud party was serious but personal ambition must always come second to doing what is right for Northern Ireland.

“Having listened to Doug speak on the media this week and spent some time with him personally, I believe we have a candidate who possesses the skills and attributes that are currently needed and it will be my pleasure to play any supporting role in the UUP Assembly team to make Northern Ireland a place we “ALL” want to live, work and thrive in.”

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Alistair Bushe