Just weeks after Mike Nesbitt comprehensively won the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party, his short lived honeymoon - if it ever existed in the first place - seems to have ended with the suggestion a third of the party’s MLAs could be prepared to leave altogether.
Last month, David McNarry was suspended from the party for nine months for repeated attacks on previous leader Tom Elliott over who knew what and when about discussions concerning greater cooperation between the UUP and DUP.
However, McNarry, now an independent unionist MLA at Stormont, has suggested five other members of the UUP’s 15 strong Assembly team are also considering following his lead – a result, he said, of them not feeling valued.
McNarry is quoted in today’s Newsletter as saying:
“There was never going to be a honeymoon for Mike [Nesbitt] when he had such an overwhelming victory in the leadership election.
“But there were really no alternatives to reflect what is a common view inside the Assembly Group - traditional unionism.
“So it has been no surprise to me, although I didn’t really think it would happen so quickly, that so far five members have indicated to me that they may be coming to join me on the benches where I sit at the moment.
“Whilst all said so with a smile on their face, clearly there is deep thinking going on. I’m not just too sure how coordinated it is.”
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His comments come as one of the party’s MEPs, Jim Nicholson, launched a scathing attack on the “faceless, gutless” members of the UUP allegedly briefing against him in a bid to see him de-selected ahead of the 2014 European Elections.
“I’m extremely saddened by this whole type of briefing which smacks of the same type of underhand comment from people who are not prepared to come out and identify themselves, as happened against Tom Elliott.
“As far as I am concerned, I am not prepared to put up with this. I’m not going to stand for it and these people can either stand up, put up or shut up.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’ve made my position clear on the Inside Politics show a number of weeks ago, before the whole campaign took place, that I’m enjoying my job, I’m enjoying it more than ever, I’ve got tremendous responsibility in terms of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, I want to continue to work and help on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, and those are my priorities.
“But the one thing that I’m certainly not going to be is put off track on doing my job by these faceless, gutless people who reporters call ‘important people’ or ‘informed sources within the Ulster Unionist Party’.
“Mike Nesbitt said very clearly when he was elected leader that the past was over. As far as I’m concerned, the past is over and if these people want to really come out and challenge me, let them go up there.
“I have stood for election after election since 1975 and if they have the guts to stand there and put their name up against me, I’ll take them on and I’ll take them out. It’s as simple as that.”
Meanwhile, ahead of the party’s annual conference this weekend in Castlereagh, Alliance Party leader and justice minister, David Ford, has warned that his party is seriously considering whether to pull the plug on him remaining in the Justice Department over its anger at the decision to abolish the Department for Employment and Learning, currently led by the Alliance’s Stephen Farry.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph ahead of the conference, Ford said:
“Last year the electorate gave us a guaranteed one seat out of 10 on the Executive as a result of extra votes for Alliance and seats in the Assembly. The proposal at the moment is to fiddle the constitution to deprive us of that right.
“We have made it very clear that in those circumstances we would expect a minister to be given a guarantee - that they could not be removed except by their party leader.”
Pressed whether he could envisage the Alliance council pulling the plug, Ford added:
“I certainly can. There are people who say we should have left the Executive at the point where it became clear Stephen would lose the ministry. People feel fairly sore.”
In the run up to any conference it can be very easy to get carried away with the rhetoric that often goes with such events designed to appease grassroots supporters. That said, however, Ford’s warning should be taken seriously. The Justice post is one of the most sensitive within the Stormont Executive and any move to withdraw Ford from it by the Alliance Party is likely to cause substantial headaches both in Belfast and Westminster.