The Ulster Unionists have been plunged into fresh turmoil after leader Mike Nesbitt sacked his deputy in a row over unionist unity.
In yet another day of confusion and anger in the beleaguered party’s ranks, Mr Nesbitt also appeared to unilaterally abolish the deputy’s post after dismissing John McCallister.
Mr McCallister was summarily sacked after warning the party is “sleepwalking” into unionist unity with an almost “daily diet” of joint initiatives with the DUP. After sacking Mr McCallister, Mr Nesbitt then flew off to the Labour Party conference in Manchester — without making any comment or giving any explanation over his decision.
In a disastrous day for the UUP, Mr McCallister then retaliated by immediately resigning as the party’s spokesman on health.
“If the leader has lost confidence in me as deputy leader I think it's best for him and the party that I step aside as health spokesman too,” he said.
And last night Mr Nesbitt was facing questions over his leadership after Lagan Valley Assembly Member Basil McCrea appeared to question the decision to get rid of Mr McCallister after just six months together in office.
In a statement likely to increase the pressure on Mr Nesbitt, Mr McCrea said there was a lot in Mr McCallister’s speech he agreed with, and he did not believe there was any contradiction between the positions of the two men.
Effectively asking why Mr McCallister was sacked — without directly criticising the leader — Mr McCrea said: “I am not sure there is any difference between the two.
“I supported John McCallister
in his leadership bid; I think he is an excellent politician and his speech a few days ago, which set out what he considers to be the right way forward for the party, has a lot of content we can agree with.”
In an attempt to limit the damage, the UUP Assembly team issued a statement saying all MLAs including Mr McCallister supported Mr Nesbitt’s weekend comments, including when the leader said that he wanted the electorate “to have a choice”.
“In his speech Peter Robinson also conceded a single party is not an option. Let the matter rest at that.” Oddly, the same Press release also included a statement from Mr McCallister.
“I am disappointed at the decision of Mike Nesbitt to remove me as deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party's Assembly group but I accept that he has the right,” he said.
“In my comments in a speech to a Young Unionist dinner to mark the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, I stated that I did not believe unity to be helpful to unionism or to Northern Ireland as a whole.
“I am disappointed at the leader's decision as I believe that in the majority of my remarks I was quoting from the leader's speech at the party conference and I remain very supportive of his call to end sectarianism and tribal politics,” he said.
A separate email sent shortly after Mr Nesbitt met Mr McCallister to dismiss him said the leader had “already decided to stand down the position of deputy leader of the Assembly group pending a review of this post”.
Mr McCallister was defeated by Mike Nesbitt in the contest to replace Tom Elliott as Ulster Unionist Party leader earlier this year.
A senior figure dismissed, his post abolished, and the leader jets to England ... just another day of woe for a troubled party
By Noel McAdam
It’s just a week after the Ulster Unionists’ showcase annual conference — but already the feelgood factor has gone and the party is settling back into its shambolic routine of confusion and anger.
Its Assembly team was left in limbo after leader Mike Nesbitt dismissed his deputy John McCallister, and then flew off to attend the Labour Party Conference for two days.
Mr McCallister was sacked for a speech made over the weekend. But in a bizarre move, the entire speech — interpreted as a damaging attack on Mr Nesbitt — was published on the party website.
And after an email told MLAs there was no vacancy for the deputy leader post which had been abolished, party spokesmen contradicted that saying the position is “under review”.
The party Press office also put out a statement from its Assembly group backing Mr Nesbitt that also contained a statement from Mr McCallister expressing his disappointment at his decision.
The UUP should have been benefiting from the bounce that traditionally follows a party conference, as well as the success of Mr Nesbitt’s first major policy speech leading into the Ulster Covenant weekend.
Instead, it is back in the doldrums with the old split between traditionalists and modernisers opening up new wounds.
It all began innocently enough at an official get-together of young Ulster Unionist members in the Errigle Inn in south Belfast on Saturday night, just a few hours after the massive Ulster Covenant centenary march across the city to Stormont had ended.
Some of those who attended the gathering — which was not an ‘official’ Ulster Young Unionist event, sources insist — even went on for a meal to Giraffe restaurant.
But as they ate, the party leadership was already unravelling behind them.
It was just 24 hours after leader Mr Nesbitt had told a dinner jointly organised with the DUP that he “would not be found wanting” when it came to acting in the “best interests of all”.
In his fateful speech, Mr McCallister said that it was “disappointing... that reasonable observers are concluding that the UUP is sleepwalking into unionist unity.
“The recently, almost daily, diet of shared initiatives with the DUP — shared commemorations, shared Press releases, shared events, shared statements — has built up the unfortunate impression that the unionist unity train has left the station.
“In the driver’s cab a certain P Robinson is smiling broadly, delighting that he appears to have the UUP as a passenger.”
Mr Nesbitt phoned Mr McCallister and told him he wanted to see him the following morning at 9am. It is not clear whether in their conversation Mr Nesbitt told Mr McCallister he was going to be dismissed.
Mr McCallister gave an interview to the BBC radio programme Inside Politics in which he said there were no major differences with the leader. Instead he insisted his remarks had dealt with the perception of a shift towards unionist unity — which he argued was not in keeping with the spirit of the Ulster Covenant.
However, Mr Nesbitt was apparently telling colleagues that after Mr McCallister’s comments he had received many complaints about the use of the phrase “sleep- walking into unionist unity”.
Within minutes of their meeting at Stormont, the news that Mr McCallister had been dismissed as deputy leader was made public by the party’s former director of communications and political commentator Alex Kane.
Meanwhile, an email from party general secretary Colin McCusker told MLAs that the position of deputy leader was being abolished until the completion of a review of the post.
The email said: “The party leader will be in Manchester at the Labour Party Conference on Monday October 1 and Tuesday October 2.
“He will be conducting a mini reshuffle of the Assembly team which he will announce on his return later this week.”
The never-ending splits and mixed messages go on
By Alex Kane
During his leadership campaign, Mike Nesbitt claimed that “internal discipline” would be a vital component of UUP recovery, insisting that he would expect loyalty as leader and that any disloyalty would be dealt with and “speedily so”.
Since then he has waved goodbye to Lord Maginnis, as well as rapping the knuckles of a few local councillors along the way.
In each of those cases, he was responding to what he saw as very clear breaches of disciplinary policy; and proving that he was prepared to take on all-comers, irrespective of their seniority, or popularity within the party.
Unfortunately, from his perspective at least, rather than being increasingly regarded as a tough leader who was bringing his party under much-needed control, he is still viewed as an inexperienced leader trying to manage a party which stumbles on from one bad news day to another.
But the disciplining of John McCallister is different; not least because it isn’t entirely clear why he is being disciplined.
Nesbitt seems to have taken exception to the suggestion — in a speech given by McCallister to a group of young unionists on Saturday — that he was “sleep-walking into unionist unity”.
Yet here’s what Nesbitt said at the joint UUP/DUP dinner on Friday evening: “Without breaking confidentiality, I can say with certainty that we (Nesbitt and Peter Robinson) presented a united front, focused on what was best for Northern Ireland and without any thought of seeking party political advantage.
“So, it can be done and when it is right that it is done, I will not be found wanting in working for the best interests of all.”
At that same dinner, Peter Robinson floated his idea of a Council for the Union “which could entwine all strands of unionism and people who are pro-Union and who agree on a common set of democratic principles.
“I hope that the atmosphere of co-operation that has made the events of tonight and of this weekend possible can continue in the months and years to come.”
Given those comments from both leaders, was McCallister wrong to suggest that sleep-walking into unionist unity was a possibility?
Anyway, how out-of-tune was his thinking with Nesbitt’s when, during the rest of his speech, he argued: “Ulster Unionism's ambitions and aspirations for Northern Ireland are much greater and more enduring than the false promise of unionist unity.
“We want a pluralist politics for a pluralist Northern Ireland. Political institutions that offer real choice to citizens. An administration held to account by an Opposition. A future not defined by past divisions. A region at ease with its place in the contemporary United Kingdom.”
By removing McCallister as the deputy leader of the Assembly group, (followed later by McCallister’s decision to step down as health spokesman), Nesbitt leaves the impression that he may be much more interested in unionist unity than many in his party realise.
Much of what McCallister said on Saturday evening echoes what Nesbitt himself was saying a week earlier at the UUP’s annual conference.
Indeed Nesbitt, like McCallister, also stressed the importance of the UUP remembering and returning to the pluralism championed by Lord Carson.
As ever with the Ulster Unionist Party, the general picture — insofar as anyone can see a picture anymore — is of never-ending division and mixed messages. It seems to be a continuing story of yet another week bringing yet another spat.
The media and the UUP’s political opponents love it, of course, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that every bad news day costs the party hundreds of lost votes: a scale of loss they can’t sustain for much longer.
Alex Kane is a writer and commentator and former director of communications for the UUP