THE Ulster Unionist Party is at war with each other again after leader Mike Nesbitt withdrew the Assembly whip from Basil McCrea over the Union flag row.
On Thursday, Mr McCrea, an MLA for Lagan Valley said a UUP leaflet put through 40,000 homes condeming the Alliance Party over its stance on the Union flag was “reprehensible”.
The leaflet was not approved by party leader Mike Nesbitt but distributed by the UUP east Belfast constituency association.
But by lunchtime on Thursday, Mr McCrea received word that his party boss Mike Nesbitt was withdrawing the whip on him in the Assembly.
It is expected he will face disciplinary action for speaking out against fellow party members in the flag row.
Three UUP councillors at Belfast City Hall have already complained to the party leadership demanding Mr McCrea be disciplined
Asked asked about future in UUP, Mr McCrea said: “I will not make a knee jerk reaction. There is an issue here and I am loyal to my voters.”
He defended his stance on the Union flag and said there needed to leadership in Northern Ireland.
He added: “I may be a minority of one but the truth is still the truth. The protests have lost the moral authority.”
On hearing the news about Basil McCrea, political commentator and former UUP press secretary, Alex Kane tweeted: “Mike Nesbitt is leader in name only.”
Earlier on Thursday, Mr McCrea had called for all-party talks to resolve the ongoing flag dispute.
There have been loyalist protests since Belfast councillors voted to restrict the flying of the flag at the city hall.
Some of the protests have resulted in rioting and violent attacks on police and property.
The DUP wants a consultation process to extend the number of days the union flag is flown at Stormont.
A meeting of the assembly commission, the cross-party group that manages the estate, did not go ahead on Tuesday because there were not enough members present.
Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance boycotted the meeting.
Mr McCrea said the past two weeks had been a “disaster for Northern Ireland, the business community in Belfast and the pro-union family”.
“The negative images conveyed throughout the world are destroying jobs, businesses and our prospects for peace and prosperity,” he said.
Mr McCrea said any decision regarding the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall was “bound to raise tensions” if not “handled with care”.
“Political parties in city hall seem determined to obtain maximum short term political advantage with reckless disregard for the future of Northern Ireland,” he said.
The Lagan Valley MLA said the situation could have been handled in a better way, and used the example of Lisburn City Council where a similar decision was taken in 2006 without large scale civil unrest.
He called for all-party talks to resolve the flag issue.
“This issue of flags represents a fundamental schism in our political thinking and it should be dealt with, not in some back room deal where things are pressurised or votes are brought to bear in a way that wasn’t meant to happen but by full and frank discussion in a democratic matter,” he said.
“The discussion on flags in their entirety across the whole of Northern Ireland should take place in all- party talks convened for that purpose.”
Twenty-nine police officers have been injured during loyalist demonstrations since Belfast City Council voted to change its flag policy on 3 December.
Nationalist councillors, who hold a majority on the council, wanted to remove the flag completely.
However, Sinn Fein and the SDLP backed a compromise motion, proposed by the Alliance party, to fly the flag on designated days rather than all year round.
Death threats have been issued to several senior politicians, including First Minister Peter Robinson and Alliance MP Naomi Long since the protests began.
The homes and offices of several Alliance party members have also been targeted.