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Ulster Unionist peers back Mike Nesbitt bid

UUP grandees support 'change' leadership candidate

By Liam Clarke

Mike Nesbitt’s bid for leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party received a dramatic boost when it emerged that three out of four Ulster Unionist peers will be supporting his candidature.

Mr Nesbitt formally launched his campaign for leadership at a reception in Stormont yesterday morning.

The addition of such a large part of the party aristocracy will raise his profile, coming, as it does, on top of the endorsement of the young unionists.

“We had a good deal of discussion about it and Nesbitt is the man for the job. The time has come for change,” stated Lord Laird of Artigarvan.

He added that Lord Rogan, a former party president, and Lord Maginnis, the former MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, were also in the Nesbitt camp.

It had previously been thought that most of the Ulster Unionist peers would choose to support Danny Kennedy.

However, now Lord Empey is the only peer likely to do so.

Lord Trimble, now a Conservative Party peer, and Lord Kilclooney are no longer UUP members.

Lord Laird said that he had considered backing Danny Kennedy but had decided against it, despite his liking for the South Down MLA.

He described Mr Kennedy as “a country man and a nice decent chap who is totally honest,” but felt that, in the last analysis, he was “not enough of a change from Tom Elliott”.

“I have always been a great supporter of Danny Kennedy, but I think this is time for a different approach” he said.

“We need to get the urban vote out and I would have great faith in Mike Nesbitt to do that.

“I have known Mike for a considerable amount of time and I would have strong confidence in him. I am very glad to support him. The time has come.”

The UUP’s decline has been most marked in the east of the province where seats in areas like Strangford, where Mr Nesbitt was elected for the first time last year, are clearly vulnerable.

The party also needs to gather itself for the new constituency boundaries which will reduce the number of MLAs to 96 or lower in the next election.

“Our problem is that we need someone who will get the city vote out and another country man just isn’t going to do it,” Lord Laird said.

This will be taken as an implicit criticism not only of Mr Kennedy, but also of John McCallister, the liberally-minded Co Down farmer who is the youngest contender for the position.

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