Former Ulster Unionist MLA David McClarty has ruled out re-joining the party with Mike Nesbitt as its leader and has voiced his support for Basil McCrea as he faces disciplinary action.
Mr McClarty on Monday backed Mr McCrea against the UUP leader in a crunch Assembly vote on support for the 1998 Agreement.
At one point East Londonderry MLA McClarty had suggested he might stand for the UUP in the next election because Mr Nesbitt’s leadership “could be the springboard for something new”. But he now rules that out, saying he is disappointed with the direction Mr Nesbitt is taking the party.
He told the Belfast Telegraph: “Now rejoining is not even in the equation. I do not like the direction that the party seems to be going. I don’t like the idea of closer ties with the DUP because I don’t think that will work to the Ulster Unionists’ advantage. The moderate voice of unionism is being lost.”
He said he would like to talk to Mr McCrea and other moderates to “try and find a way forward for unionism” if the Lagan Valley MLA is forced out of the UUP.
He argued “there is a huge swathe of unionism that isn’t being represented.”
Mr McCrea faces disciplinary charges and lost the whip for saying the Union flag should be flown on Belfast City Hall on designated days, not all year round. Mr McClarty backed him, saying: “It could have been sold as a victory rather than a defeat for unionism.” He hit out at the party’s current direction, saying: “Northern Ireland needs a moderate voice. The Ulster Unionist Party for decades was that voice of moderation. Now the electorate doesn’t know where they stand.”
His comments came as Mr Nesbitt dismissed Mr McCrea’s assertion that the UUP was diluting its support for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as “unfounded”.
Mr McCrea, on Monday voted against the rest of the UUP in the Assembly when it supported a DUP amendment removing all mention of it from the motion.
Mr Nesbitt argued it was safe to support the DUP amendment because it wasn't going to be passed thanks to a Sinn Fein “petition of concern” which allows a veto.
Meanwhile, Mr McCrea told the BBC’s Stephen Nolan that he would not remain in the party “if there is any suggestion of unionist unity — or enhanced unionist co-operation that looks to all of the world like it is unionist unity.”
After Monday, he said: “What we saw today clearly is that the DUP remains opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, even to it in spirit, though it is in government with Sinn Fein. The upshot was we had the DUP going in to vote against a motion calling for mutual respect and inclusivity. I would, of course, also argue that I have been consistent in relation to my party’s policy on flying the flag.
“We are going to end up with a flags policy which is not going to be unlike what we have at Stormont now, which is flying on designated days.”
His comments came as disciplinary proceedings against him are expected to conclude this Friday.
David McClarty was a sitting UUP MLA when he was deselected in East Londonderry, but was re-elected as an independent while two UUP runners were defeated. As a result, the UUP lost one of its two Stormont ministries. A moderate, Mr McClarty backed Mr Nesbitt in last year’s leadership campaign, saying he might stand for the UUP at the next election if Mr Nesbitt won.