The crisis-prone Ulster Unionist Party is heading for a new year split after the whip was withdrawn from Basil McCrea over his stance against flag protests.
Mr McCrea had opposed party tactics to try and get the Union flag flown more at Stormont through the Assembly Commission. “It seems clear that there is no way back for me as far as the party is concerned,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
Asked if he was on a path out of the UUP, Mr McCrea said: “I am disappointed by Mike Nesbitt’s decision. I will now take the Christmas period to... decide what is the best way forward for me and in the best interests of my electorate.”
Mr Nesbitt, party leader, left little room for manoeuvre. In a damning and uncompromising statement, he said: “Basil's inability to exercise self-discipline or demonstrate the basic characteristics of teamwork are doing enormous damage to the Ulster Unionist Party.”
However, Mr McCrea’s stance has been backed by John McCallister, a South Down MLA and former deputy leader of the UUP.
“I agree with Basil’s statement outlining the damage done to the economy and to community relations by the flags dispute and I feel it was wrong to remove the whip from him,” he said.
The row started after Mr Mc Crea criticised the UUP’s three Belfast City councillors’ decision to vote for the Union flag to fly 365 days a year on City Hall.
Since there are more nationalists on the council Mr McCrea believed compromise was inevitable. One was proposed by Alliance and accepted by nationalists, but not the UUP or DUP.
Mr McCrea also condemned the role of party activists in helping distribute leaflets in Alliance colours saying Alliance was supporting the nationalist position. The last straw for Mr Nesbitt came when Mr McCrea sent him a draft statement on Wednesday.
It accused City Hall parties of “reckless disregard for the future of Northern Ireland” and condemned a statement from party officers calling for the flag issue to be raised at the Assembly Commission, where unionists have an inbuilt majority. Mr Nesbitt accused Mr McCrea of supporting this decision at the party Executive but Mr McCrea denied that it had been agreed there.
“I would have voted against it,” he said. “I advised Mike it was dangerous to get the Assembly Commission involved... with flags because they would heighten expectations and be unable to deliver.
“It isn’t the proper forum for such matters, that should have been taken care of by either all-party talks or the Assembly floor.”
The differences go deeper than a single issue. Mr McCrea rejected Mr Nesbitt’s policy of co-operation with the DUP.
“I have warned that there should be clear blue water between us and the DUP. The idea that we produce joint statements and joint initiatives is confusing for the voters and damaging electorally.”
Tattered-looking leader is flying blind in his quest to find a miracle
By Liam Clarke
Who would be Mike Nesbitt, the Ulster Unionist Party leader?
He lacks an option that can keep his fractious party in one piece.
His three Belfast councillors threatened to resign if he did not punish Basil McCrea, one of the party’s best remaining vote getters, for criticising their vote on flags.
He appeased them at the price of burning his boats with Mr McCrea. The reckoning will come in the new year and, if he loses Mr McCrea, other members including John McCallister may follow.
Mr Nesbitt needs a miracle to square this circle.
As the UUP bled members from both its conservative and liberal wings it has been sucked further into the orbit of the DUP, which is united enough to set the agenda for both parties.
The Tories and Alliance nibble his flanks. Alliance has roughly the same support as the UUP but, despite the physical pressure it faces, it has more cohesion, leverage and sense of mission than Mr Nesbitt’s party.
Unionists counted on forcing more flag flying days through the Assembly Commission, an administrative body where they have 55 votes compared to 53 for Alliance, the Greens, the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Unlike the Assembly, the commission has no cross-community voting requirements.
Unfortunately, if Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister switch sides, as they are entitled to do, then the majority swings against the unionists. Until then Alliance and the two nationalist parties can prevent the commission meeting, as they have done twice already. Alliance effectively holds the balance on the commission just like the city council and, for all the huffing and puffing, the unionist policy on flags is in tatters without a compromise that will win Mr Ford’s party over.
Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister are also in powerful bargaining positions, and would be valued prizes if they joined either Alliance or the Tories.
For its part the DUP may not be able to impose its will and claim a victory on flags as it had initially calculated. That will hurt a little in loyalist areas, but it has no real rival. It remains the largest party, it knows the value of hanging together under pressure and it could cut a deal with Sinn Fein at any point.
It is Mr Nesbitt who is swinging in the wind — proclaiming a policy he is powerless to implement atop a party that is splintering beneath him.