Red faces in UUP at MLA selection fiasco

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (centre) at Stormont on Wednesday with new MLAs Adrian Cochrane-Watson (right) and Neil Somerville
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (centre) at Stormont on Wednesday with new MLAs Adrian Cochrane-Watson (right) and Neil Somerville

The UUP has been left red-faced after it admitted an extraordinary mathematical gaffe in its selection process to appoint a new MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Neil Somerville was unveiled as the new MLA for the constituency, just over a day after a selection meeting was told that he had not even made it through to the final stage of the process.

Mr Somerville, who will take over from Tom Elliott as MLA, was one of two new UUP MLAs announced on Wednesday, with the colourful Antrim councillor Adrian Cochrane-Watson chosen to replace Danny Kinahan as MLA for South Antrim.

But Mr Somerville’s selection astonished many UUP members in the constituency because they had been told at a selection meeting on Monday night that the Clogher Valley businessman had been excluded from the process to replace the new MP.

The meeting, which was attended by more than 200 people, voted to send two candidates to the party officers – victims’ campaigner Kenny Donaldson and Fermanagh councillor Rosemary Barton.

It is understood that the meeting was not told how many votes each candidate had received. The party said that the error was so significant that Mr Somerville should have gone through instead of Ms Barton, rather than simply being tied with her in second place.

But after the party officers met on Tuesday night, Mr Somerville was announced as the new MLA. On Wednesday night the party blamed an administrative error for the confusion.

A UUP spokesman said: “After Monday night’s constituency selection process, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Association reviewed the paperwork. Unfortunately that review revealed an arithmetical error, which upon correction meant that Neil Somerville should have been one of the two candidates to go forward to the party officers.

“All three candidates affected were called together, and had no difficulty in agreeing they should all go forward to the party officer appointment panel.”

Leader Mike Nesbitt told the BBC: “I think we’ve all made counting errors in the course of our lives, hopefully not in as embarrassing circumstances as Monday night.

“Neil should have been second; he was called third. When the three candidates were informed of the error they all agreed that all three should come forward for final selection.”

But one active member of the association told the News Letter that what had happened was “disgraceful”; another source said that the meeting should have been re-run as the party rules stipulate that only two candidates should go forward from the meeting.

The UUP said that the candidates had come through a “rigorous process with strong competition”.

Mr Somerville said it would be a “privilege and an honour to serve the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the Northern Ireland Assembly”.

Mr Watson, who was chosen over fellow Antrim councillor Paul Michael, said: “I am personally delighted to be selected to carry on the excellent work of Danny Kinahan MP. I will represent the entire community of South Antrim in the Assembly.”

Mr Watson has an unusually colourful past for a councillor.

In 2005, he told a council meeting that Travellers staying on a temporary site in Antrim were “scumbags” and the “scum of the earth”.

The following year he was in the headlines after saying he would feel “uncomfortable” having gay couples in his B&B.

Three years later Tesco told children collecting money for charity to remove their GAA tops after Mr Watson passed on complaints. Those controversies led to the Conservative Party insisting that he be removed as a potential joint UUP-Tory candidate in 2010.

And just three years ago Mr Nesbitt suspended Mr Watson’s membership of the party after he went on the Nolan Show to say that he opposed power-sharing with Sinn Fein, adding: “Yes, I know it’s totally undemocratic but I’ll never promote Sinn Fein. I don’t think they are fit for public office.”

After being suspended, he said that he stood over the comments he had made. At that point, when asked for his view of Mr Nesbitt, Mr Watson said: “No comment.”

Mr Nesbitt said that although the party was losing “two excellent MLAs” in Mr Kinahan and Mr Elliott “I rest assured they are being replaced by two equally excellent choices. Adrian and Neil will bring energy, passion and commitment to their new roles and I know they will work hard in association with Danny and Tom for the people of South Antrim and Fermanagh-South Tyrone respectively.”

Also read Sam McBride’s analysis of the UUP MLA selections