There were warnings last night that the Ulster Unionist Party risks being torn apart as the battle for its leadership turned into a bitter slanging match.
The claim from leadership contender Tom Elliott came as he launched a stinging attack on his rival Basil McCrea, accusing the Lagan Valley MLA of making “intensely personal and unfounded” attacks.
Mr McCrea had accused Mr Elliott of inflicting a “painful insult” on PSNI Gaelic footballer Peadar Heffron, who was severely injured in a dissident car bomb attack.
In an extraordinary counter attack last night, Mr Elliott said he had been deeply hurt by his rival’s remarks.
“To make these lowdown comments that he has, I must say I have to question, for the first time, Basil McCrea as a colleague,” Mr Elliott said.
Amid appeals that the race should not become personal, the Fermanagh/South Tyrone MLA said he now feared the party could be split.
“With this type of campaign I fail to understand how we can have any semblance of a united party at the end of this leadership campaign,” he added.
“If this is allowed to continue I believe it will destroy the party.”
Mr Elliott accused his opponent of using Mr Heffron’s name — which had been spelt wrongly — to further his own political ambitions. He also called on Mr McCrea to withdraw what he termed factual inaccuracies regarding the role former UTV anchorman Mike Nesbitt is playing in his election campaign.
“Basil describes Mike as my chief media adviser,” he added.
“There is no such position.
“Basil also says Mike took down a particular blog from his website. Mike disputes that.
“I call on Basil to apologise, clarify and provide his evidence.”
Mr McCrea — who is due to launch his leadership campaign later today — refused to be drawn into a war of words when contacted last night.
“Tom is on the wrong side of this argument, but I’m not going to go negative on a party colleague,” he said