UUP's rapid candidate selection process

THE Ulster Unionists will have most of their candidates for the next Assembly elections selected by the end of this month, if deadlines in a leaked internal memo are met.

A letter from the party's elections officer, Richard Holmes, to the party officers and local associations sets out a three-phase selection process, with the first selections beginning on Friday, June 18 and the final constituencies beginning their selections on June 25.

The last-minute choice of candidates - with leader SIr Reg Empey only selected in South Antrim weeks before last month's general election - was cited as one of the reasons behind the UUP's failure to take any seats.

A meeting of the party's ruling executive in the wake of the election decided to immediately begin the process of selecting candidates for next year's Assembly election.

The leaked letter, dated May 19, says that at that point more than 40 individuals were awaiting assessments for the central candidates' list, which will cover both candidates for council or Assembly positions.

According to the memo, the final constituencies to be decided will be South Belfast, East Belfast, North Down, Strangford, Lagan Valley and Upper Bann. Selections there are scheduled to take place on or after June 25.

The letter adds that Antrim councillor Stephen Nicholl, the party's campaign director during the general election, and Mr Holmes will meet associations to discuss "the number of candidates that we need to run to maximise our chances of success in the Assembly election".

In the 2007 Assembly campaign, the party hierarchy was said to have taken the decision to run too many candidates, meaning that in many constituencies the UUP's vote was spread thinly between numerous candidates.

Selections for council candidates are to be held in September, by which time it should be clear whether the council election - expected to be held on the same day as the Assembly election - will be to the current 26 councils or 11 new "supercouncils".

But one UUP source said that a number of constituency associations were planning to rebel against the "aggressive" timetable.

He said: "There is a large swell of opinion saying that it doesn't make sense to press ahead with this until we have a new leader, so that a leader doesn't come in and say 'I don't like half the candidates' or vice-versa."

See Quite Big Interview: Mike Nesbitt, pages 18 & 19.