Sacked Ulster Unionist deputy leader John McCallister remains unrepentant over the controversial speech criticising the party for “sleepwalking into unionist unity” that led to his dismissal.
However the South Down MLA will remain in the UUP as a backbencher — where he intends to speak out if he believes the party is straying too close to the DUP.
“I don’t really understand why this happened, but being on the back benches gives me more freedom to speak out,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“I am happy to do that, and if the party is going wrong on some issues I will not be afraid to speak my mind on them.”
Last Saturday UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (right) called him and summoned him to a Stormont showdown on Monday.
After Mr McCallister arrived he was fired as deputy leader of the UUP Assembly group.
“Mike told me that both he and the Assembly group had lost confidence in me and he was standing me down as deputy leader with immediate effect,” he said.
Mr Nesbitt told Mr McCallister he was annoyed by a speech he gave last Friday evening at a Young Unionist dinner.
Mr McCallister said that “reasonable observers are concluding that the UUP is sleepwalking into unionist unity” after a series of joint initiatives Mr Nesbitt undertook with the DUP.
“I was warning against the danger of giving mixed messages to the voters and media. If your messages are mixed voters may conclude that you are saying one thing and doing another,” he said.
Mr McCallister said his comments had been intended to be generally supportive of Mr Nesbitt’s leadership address at last month’s UUP conference.
“Mike first raised his feelings with me in the phone call last Saturday. I told him that my
speech was 99% the same as his and was building on what he had said. It seemed to be only four or five words out of a 1,500-word speech that he had issues with.”
Mr Nesbitt’s conference speech spoke of a liberal unionist agenda but had been followed by a joint dinner and meeting with the DUP.
Mr McCallister said: “I liked Mike’s speech, I want to hold him and the party to fulfilling that agenda — and I want to ensure that they don’t instead sleepwalk into unionist unity.”
He added: “I stand by what I said. Mike called for pluralist, progressive, liberal unionism. That was the message I was relaying the following week. I am pleased that, like me, most people don’t really see what the issue was.”
Mr McCallister denied that he had been considering his position in the UUP: “It didn’t cross my mind to leave. The leader has the right to move people around in different posts. I accept that; it was his reasoning which I questioned.”