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Mike Nesbitt silent on UUP’s strategy as by-election looms

By Tom Moseley

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has refused to confirm or deny whether a single unionist candidate would stand in the Mid Ulster by-election once Martin McGuinness steps down.

It comes after Mr Nesbitt sacked his Assembly deputy leader John McCallister for suggesting the party was “sleepwalking into unionist unity” with the DUP.

Sinn Fein MP Mr McGuinness is expected to stand down within weeks to concentrate on his Assembly role as Deputy First Minister.

But Mr Nesbitt said the party had not yet taken a decision on whether it would put up a candidate.

“The election has not been called in Mid Ulster,” he said, adding that he would not be discussing pre-election politics in the media.

“What I have said is that the people of Mid Ulster will have the opportunity to vote for a candidate with Ulster Unionist values,” he told Radio Ulster.

He refused to elaborate on whether this referred to a UUP candidate, or an agreed unionist one.

Mr Nesbitt said when it was in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, he would co-operate with other unionist parties. But he said this did not equate to “unionist unity”.

Mr Nesbitt told the Belfast Telegraph he saw a section of Mr McCallister’s speech as “an attack”.

Speaking during a visit to the Labour Party conference in Manchester, Mr Nesbitt said: “There’s no crisis. The media can describe the party as being in crisis. I’ve been leader six months, I have not felt a crisis in the six months.”

He added: “John made a speech which included a section which I think was headlined ‘sleepwalking into unionist unity’. It read as an attack.

“So we discussed it, at the end of the discussion I informed John that it was my intention to stand him down as deputy leader.”

Mr Nesbitt said he had been considering ditching the position altogether.

“I don’t consider I need to use a loaded word like ‘sacked’, because the position of deputy leader has been on my mind for the six months I’ve been leader. I know before me previous leaders have questioned the value of having a deputy leader. It has no constitutional basis within the party.”

The main purpose of the role of deputy leader in the Assembly is to fill in for the leader when he is away, Mr Nesbitt said, saying it might be better to have a “pool” of people who could stand in.

He added: “I don’t have any difficulty in my relationship with John. I was elected on a ticket of bringing cohesion to who we are, and coherence to our political message. These actions are consistent with that.”

He cited a Belfast Telegraph poll carried out during his party conference that gave him a higher approval rating than when he took over the leadership.

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