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John McCallister joins UUP race... and vows to take party into opposition

By Steven Alexander and Noel McAdam

The deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists has said he will run for the leadership of the party — and said his first act will be to announce that it is going into opposition at Stormont.

Self-declared liberal unionist John McCallister said the UUP’s membership of the Executive “is bad for the party and bad for Northern Ireland”.

“Opposition provides real accountability and gives voters real power to deliver change,” the South Down MLA said.

“The structures put in place in 1998 have done their job and have brought our society out of conflict. It is now time to push forward with normalising our politics and giving real power and choice to voters,” he said.

Yesterday, Newry and Armagh MLA Danny Kennedy was the first contender to throw his hat in the ring following the shock resignation of Tom Elliott last week. He would only say yesterday however that he will launch his campaign in the coming days and declined to make further comment.

Mr McCallister — whose wife Jane is expecting the couple's second child five days after the leadership election — said that without an opposition “Stormont becomes a cosy club for politicians”.

“Ulster Unionism is at its best when it takes courageous decisions to drive Northern Ireland forward. That is why my first act as leader would be to announce that the Ulster Unionist Party is forming the Opposition to the Executive in Stormont,” he said last night.

“The UUP sitting around the Executive table is bad for the party and bad for Northern Ireland. It results in the UUP simply giving cover to the DUP and Sinn Fein, and it short-changes voters and taxpayers by preventing real, robust scrutiny of the Executive.”

Mr McCallister also sought to put clear blue water between himself and Danny Kennedy, the only other contender for the leadership so far, who attends DUP ministerial group meetings.

“Others suggest that the Ulster Unionist Party should quietly drift into the orbit of the DUP and be satisfied with a seat at the Executive table. I believe that the membership of the Ulster Unionist Party shares with me a much greater — and more worthy — ambition,” Mr McCallister said.

What now?

There is continuing speculation that former UTV broadcaster Mike Nesbitt, the Assembly member for Strangford, and Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea will run for the UUP leadership. Mr McCrea was defeated by Tom Elliott in the last contest.

Candidates have until Friday to hand in their nomination papers, which, with the leadership election due on March 31, will be followed by a two-week electoral campaign.

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