THE leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, Dr John Kyle, is considering leaving the party altogether after it voted last night to retain links with paramilitaries.
The party agreed to maintain its link with the UVF and Red Hand Commando (RHC), but current leader Dr Kyle told the News Letter that the result had forced him to consider leaving.
He said he would stand down as party leader next month, as he had only considered himself a caretaker leader after the resignation of former leader Dawn Purvis.
"But I have not given any indication about my membership (of the party) which remains under consideration," he said last night.
During the party meeting, he had argued to "sever the link" with the UVF and RHC, he said.
Asked if he was now considering his membership of the party because the vote was strongly in favour of retaining the link, he answered "Yes".
Last night's meeting in the Stormont Hotel saw up to 50 PUP faithful gather. A party spokesman told the News Letter it had engaged in an "open conversation" about the paramilitary link.
It is understood the vote to continue the link was almost unanimous with
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only a handful of members voting to
sever it. Brian Ervine, the brother of former PUP leader David, will contend the leadership. He stood side-by-side with Dr Kyle, party chairman Brian Lacey and Antrim councillor Ken Wilkinson after the meeting in a show of unity.
In an agreed statement, Belfast councillor Dr Kyle said: "After much debate and open conversation the membership decided to maintain the link with the UVF and Red Hand Commando. The PUP was founded upon the core principles of social justice and conflict transformation.
"It has been a vehicle for loyalists to actively partake in the political process, we remain committed to giving a voice to working class loyalists throughout Northern Ireland.
"We are focused on helping society move beyond violence and sectarianism, to quote David Ervine to creating a path out of the jungle."
However, while there was an outward show of unity, it was clear that many members are already looking to the next leader and that was the main topic of conversation amongst members leaving the meeting.
The PUP has been rocked in recent months by significant resignations and internal wrangling over its continuing link with the paramilitary groupings.
Former party leader Dawn Purvis walked away following the UVF murder of Shankill Road man Bobby Moffett in May and former deputy leader David Rose resigned last month. Deputy chairman Tommy Sandford also quit the party in August.
The almost unanimous conclusion of the meeting was unexpected, however, with Dr Kyle telling the News Letter yesterday afternoon that he could not say for sure what the outcome of the meeting would be.
He said it was a "single issue" meeting which would give the party a chance to "avoid any sideshows" at the main conference on October 16.
Dr Kyle has previously described the paramilitary link as "inappropriate and politically damaging".