Troubled backdrop to UUP conference

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ULSTER Unionists are gathering for their annual conference in Belfast today against a backdrop of high-profile resignations and dissent.

In his party leader's speech, Tom Elliott is expected to call for unity ahead of the Assembly elections, but will be smarting from news of the latest party member to walk away.

Harry Hamilton, the UUP's highest polling candidate in the last general election with 10,639 votes, has resigned on the eve of the conference saying he no longer had a place in the party.

Mr Hamilton, a well-known Freddie Mercury impersonator, said the party had selected him as its sole candidate "for the highest political forum in the UK", yet rejected him when it chose its three Upper Bann candidates for the Assembly.

"I am from the liberal end of unionism, and perhaps that had something to do with my rejection."

He added: "I will always remain pro-union, but politics in this country really must move on into the 21st century."

His decision follows on from Paula Bradshaw's defection to the Alliance party, and Trevor Ringland's controversial resignation in recent months.

In a bullish speech, party leader Tom Elliott is set to confirm

his "unembarrassed and unapologetic" brand of unionism, while making the point that he is neither a "west of the Bann unionist" nor a "political dinosaur".

Calling for unity within the party, the leader will also declare a willingness to cooperate with other shades of unionism, but rejecting being "pressurised by any other party into creating a sham, short-lived, self-serving unity."

Mr Elliott will also take the opportunity to press home his demand for a "hard-working united party" and an end to people "undermining the party from within".

Despite the opportunity for today's show of unity, another outspoken opponent of Tom Elliott's leadership is predicting up to 14 more resignations in the coming weeks.

Secretary of the UUP's Moira branch, John Lund, was suspended from the party for six months over remarks he made about Mr Elliott in September.

Referring to his party leader's attitude towards the GAA and gay pride parades, Mr Lund said during a radio interview: "One of the things that strikes me this morning is that I personally think that gay pride and the GAA have as much relevance as the Orange Order - they've probably both got more members".

Mr Lund claims he can no longer remain in the party and says he is certain that others are set to follow.

Also on the agenda for today's conference are debates on the economy, policing, and the delegates will hear from their women's development officer Sandra Overend about the Parker Programme which promotes opportunities for women within the party.