UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has been accused of using “Hitler-like” tactics to control his own party members.
The savage attack from former party grandee Lord Kilclooney comes as the controversy over Lord Maginnis’ remarks about homosexuals and the removal of the party whip by the leader rumble on.
Kilclooney, formerly John Taylor, is a former unionist minister of Home Affairs, MEP, MLA and MP who left the party to join the cross-bench group in the Lords.
He told the Belfast Telegraph: “I remain an Ulster Unionist in terms of political allegiance.”
On Sunday Mr Nesbitt formally removed the whip from Lord Maginnis for a radio interview in which he claimed that gay marriage could be a rung on the ladder towards legalising sex with animals.
Mr Nesbitt said that all contact with the media should be cleared with the party press office.
The UUP leader told the Belfast Telegraph: “I removed the whip both for the use of intemperate language and not working though the press office.”
But Lord Kilclooney has hit out at the decision. He said: “These are Hitler-like tactics. Mike Nesbitt has said that nobody can speak to the media without getting clearance from the press office. That means that a unionist councillor can’t talk to a local paper about local issues without going to the press office in Belfast.”
Mr Nesbitt denies the charge and said he was simply implementing existing rules by refusing to allow party members to talk to the press without permission.
Lord Kilclooney shares an office with Lord Maginnis in the House of Lords. He added: “I would not always support Ken’s use of language. He speaks very bluntly, but on the issue of gay marriage he has overwhelming public support,” he said.
“I share an office with Ken in Westminster and the phone and the emails never stop. Overwhelmingly, Roman Catholics and Protestants alike were backing Ken. He has massive support on this issue”.
He added that if Lord Maginnis left the UUP he “would be welcome in the cross-bench group.”
But a party officer has described Lord Kilclooney’s Hitler jibe as “outrageous.”
He added: “Mike is doing what he was elected to do by 81% of delegates. He is trying to bring some coherence to the party’s message. He has our support in doing so.”
The whip has been withdrawn from three UUP members for contacts with the media since Mr Nesbitt took over the leadership earlier this year. Adrian Watson lost the whip in Antrim Council for saying: “Pigs will fly before Antrim allows a Sinn Fein mayor”, adding: “I know it’s totally undemocratic but I’ll never promote Sinn Fein. I don’t think they are fit for public office.”
Before that David McNarry, an MLA in Mr Nesbitt’s own Strangford constituency lost the whip for telling the Belfast Telegraph about secret talks with the DUP and then attacking the leadership. He was subsequently expelled from the party.
Removing the whip is one of the few disciplinary measures that a UUP leader can impose. In this case a meeting of party officers on Friday night urged Mr Nesbitt to use the power to avoid lengthy disciplinary proceedings.
“It is not about censorship it is about co-ordination,” Mr Nesbitt said.
A party spokesman pointed to a standing order going back to 2008 which required members to co-ordinate press comments through the director of communications.
He added that the rule was not always enforced but could be used where party policy was breached or comments risked bringing the party into disrepute.
On Monday Lord Maginnis stood by his use of language, describing homosexuality as an “unnatural, deviant and offensive” lifestyle.
“What people do in their own homes behind closed doors is one thing but when I see all these pinkies out demonstrating on the streets I find it offensive,” he added.