UNDER FIRE UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has hit back at two MLAs who quit over the party’s decision to “jump into bed” with the DUP.
John McCallister resigned on Thursday night and Basil McCrea quit on Friday morning after the UUP agreed with the UUP to back a unionist unity candidate to contest next month’s Mid-Ulster by-election.
Nigel Lutton, the son of a murdered RUC officer, will go up against Sinn Fein’s Francie Molloy and the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone for the vacant seat on March 7.
The pact has been condemned by the Alliance Party.
Eric Bullick, who has been selected by the party to stand in Mid-Ulster, described the pact for a unity candidate as an “an ugly and nasty tribal pact, which stands against everything that a democracy should be.”
Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister, who are now likely to form their own party, took a swipe at their former party leader over his decision to support the DUP in opting for one candidate to represent the two parties.
However, on Friday, Mr Nesbitt, a television presenter and broadcaster, launched his own broadside against the pair who will now sit as independents on the Assembly benches.
On John McCallister, the UUP leader said: “If he is resigning on principle, why did he not resign over the selection of an agreed candidate in Rodney Connor in Fermanagh & South Tyrone?”
The South Down MLA announced his decision to resign on BBC1 Northern Ireland’s political discussion programme, The View.
Mr McCrea, MLA for Lagan Valley, announced his decision to quit on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show on Friday morning.
On Mr McCrea, Mike Nesbitt said: “I reject Basil’s claim that, in my leadership campaign, I advocated ‘no big idea’.
“What I said was there was no quick fix and there was no ‘big idea’ beyond a long, hard slog on the ground. Hard work was the big idea,” Mr Nesbitt said.
Speaking about both former party members, the UUP leader said: “It is a matter of huge regret that, following a unanimous vote of the Mid-Ulster Ulster Unionist Constituency Association, some individuals chose to attack the party on the airwaves.
“The Party reviewed key policies in 2012 and neither John nor Basil attended internal meetings or contributed in any meaningful way. Indeed, John attended more Northern Ireland Conservative events over that period than he attended Ulster Unionist reviews.”
My vision remains for a revitalised, pluralist, non-sectarian progressive political party remains undimmed. That party is the Ulster Unionist Party,” added Mr Nesbitt.
Following his decision to quit, Mr McCrea said: “I have no confidence in what Mike Nesbitt says.”
Mr McCrea added: “There is no future for me in the UUP”.
And he accused his party leader of “getting into bed with the DUP.”
He said that the Mid Ulster by-election was “squaring up to be a sectarian
battle” and that a joint candidate damaged the “whole of Northern Ireland”.
And Mr McCrea told the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster: “John and I intend to form a real, viable opposition, hopefully with other people.”
It means the UUP is now down to 13 MLAs in the Assembly, making the SDLP the third largest party with 14 MLAs.
On Thursday night, South Down MLA John McCallister said he strongly opposed the idea of unionist unity and announced he was standing down.
His dramatic decision came after the DUP and UUP revealed that Nigel Lutton was chosen to represent unionism in next month’s contest.
Mr McCallister said: “It’s nothing personal to Nigel, I know Nigel. It is about principle. I am opposed to unionist unity and I do not want to be part of that.”
He made the decision on the BBC television politics show The View and said he had informed his constituency association.
Mr McCallister was first elected to the UUP in 2007.
He said he had grave concerns about the direction in which the UUP was going.
His departure is another blow for Mike Nesbitt’s UUP which has already lost political heavyweights like Ken Maginnis and David McNarry.
Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea, who is a close ally of Mr McCallister was given a formal warning from the UUP leadership over comments he made about the handling of the flags crisis.
East Londonderry MLA David McClarty stood as an independent after he was deselected in 2011.
Mr McCallister said he had informed Mike Nesbitt about his resignation earlier.
In a hard-hitting open letter he accused the UUP leader of lacking courage, failing to stand up to the DUP and becoming Peter Robinson’s junior partner.
He said: “Your failure to articulate and communicate a distinctive UUP stance – based on Ulster Unionism’s core values – on last year’s parades controversies, on the Covenant centenary, on the Union flag debate, on the misguided Unionist Forum and on the potential of electoral pacts with the DUP has unfortunately inflicted grave damage on the Party.
“Under your leadership a profound disconnection has occurred between UUP policy and Ulster Unionist values. The policies have increasingly become alienated from the values which should guide and shape an Ulster Unionist.