Independent MLA who turned down UUP offer says ‘unionism put all its eggs in DUP basket and now they’re cracked’

An independent unionist MLA who turned down a recent invite to join the UUP has said unionism has been damaged by “putting all its eggs in the DUP basket”.

Saturday, 5th June 2021, 7:01 am
Updated Saturday, 5th June 2021, 8:12 am
East Londonderry MLA Claire Sugden. Photo by Lorcan Doherty / Press Eye.

Former Justice Minister Claire Sugden, the only person in the Assembly to have been elected as an independent, made the comment in an interview with the News Letter during which she discussed a “socially progressive” vision of unionism the new UUP leader Doug Beattie believes the two have in common.

Earlier this week, Mr Beattie was quoted in a BBC article as saying he would “give my right arm” to have Ms Sugden — the first candidate to make it over the line at the last election in the mostly unionist East Londonderry constituency — in his party.

But while she has declined the invitation for now, she said she is “excited” to see what the liberal UUP leader can do.

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“I’m being very honest and very genuine when I say I am excited to see what Doug Beattie can do,” she said.

“Before anyone was talking about a socially progressive unionism I was saying that is what is needed. You could dig up an old BBC interview with Gareth Gordon a number of years ago where I said, as an independent, I don’t have a home because it doesn’t exist.

“If Doug can create that then maybe that could be an option for me. He is saying all the right things but he hasn’t done them yet, and I think I do a good job as an independent.”

She continued: “There’s a role for independents to play in all parliaments in bringing a reasoned perspective to things. I can’t consult my party-policy handbook that tells me how I have to think. I have to listen to people and come to my own position. There isn’t that party control.

“I think Sinn Fein are known for that but other parties are as well. There are members of the DUP who are more liberal than I am, but can’t express those views because they are members of the DUP.”

Asked to explain her vision of unionism, she said: “My unionism is very progressive and positive, and it’s also about the practical opportunities within Northern Ireland. We need to be getting to a point where it’s about making Northern Ireland work. And if we’re making Northern Ireland work, to me, that’s unionism.

“I do appreciate that there are others who have a different perspective of unionism than that, but that’s because of history and because of how others have presented that.

“That’s maybe because the largest unionist party are the DUP and they are a traditional, right-wing party. They are not socially progressive, so people are conflating unionism with right-wing politics.

“For a long time unionism put all its eggs in the DUP basket. The DUP has dropped their basket and now some of those eggs are cracked. So yes, it has damaged unionism.”

Responding, South Belfast MLA Christopher Stalford said: “Many unionists have differing views on social and economic issues, but we share a common belief in making Northern Ireland a successful and prosperous part of the United Kingdom.

“Edwin Poots has said he wants to work with all shades of unionism and whilst we may not agree on everything, there should be a common desire to strengthen and promote Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.”