UUP meeting did not back unity candidate

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A MEETING of the UUP’s Mid-Ulster constituency association last week did not vote to support a single unionist candidate, it has emerged.

After Thursday night’s meeting, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said that the party was prepared to back a “community candidate” so long as they had “Ulster Unionist values”.

However, it has now been confirmed that while the meeting was informed of the plan to search for a single unionist candidate, it was not put to a vote.

Two sources said that at the meeting there was no consensus about the strategy, which has divided opinion within the party.

Mr Nesbitt, who attended the Mid-Ulster AGM, told the News Letter: “Naturally there was a discussion about the by-election.

“I repeated to the meeting that I had stated previously in public: one, if the DUP stand a candidate, we will stand an Ulster Unionist candidate.

“Secondly, whatever happens, the voters of Mid-Ulster will have the opportunity to vote for a candidate with Ulster Unionist values.”

When asked what he meant by “Ulster Unionist values”, Mr Nesbitt said: “The spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.”

When asked if that meant that a unity candidate would have to support the 1998 agreement, Mr Nesbitt declined to comment.

Asked again to clarify what Ulster Unionist values are, the Ulster Unionist leader declined to comment.

The Belfast Agreement has re-emerged in recent days as a divisive issue. Last week Basil McCrea – who has lost the party whip – voted against his party for the first time on an issue of policy after the UUP agreed to support a DUP amendment to an Assembly motion that removed a reference to the agreement.

It is unlikely that the DUP would support a unionist unity candidate who openly supported the agreement.

There are few names being talked about in UUP and DUP circles as possible unity candidates and one UUP source yesterday said that it was likely that the UUP would run its own candidate because no single unionist candidate could be found.

The issue was debated among UUP MLAs at their bi-weekly group meeting on Monday, when Mr Nesbitt was absent, and again yesterday morning, when he was present.

A date for the election has not yet been moved, though it had been expected to be held by spring.

Victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer, who said before Christmas that he would stand as an independent unionist even if there was a unionist unity candidate, said that there had been no change in his position.

He said: “As far as I can see, this talk about a united candidate but with all the same policies [is not the answer] ... they need to wake up to the fact this is not about a party but about the future of the country.”

Mr Frazer acknowledged that even with a single unionist candidate, there was no chance of the republican stronghold being won for unionism. He said: “It can’t be won in so far as being elected is concerned but it can be a moral victory with people sending a message to the politicians.

“For nearly 100 years, they’ve blackmailed the people by saying that if you don’t vote for a certain party it would let another party in.”

Sinn Fein has selected veteran republican Francie Molloy to contest the seat and the SDLP has already chosen former deputy leader Patsy McGlone as its candidate.

A unionist has not held Mid-Ulster since its boundaries were redrawn and the then MP, William McCrea, lost his seat to Martin McGuinness in 1997.

In the 2011 Assembly election, Sinn Fein took almost half of the total vote.

The DUP polled 16.7 per cent of the vote, the UUP got 10.3 per cent and the TUV won 4.9 per cent.

If the three unionist parties’ votes were added together from the last election, it would still only have been 31.9 per cent of the vote.