The Ulster Unionist Party risks being torn apart as the battle for its leadership turns into a bitter slanging match, it was claimed today.
As Basil McCrea officially launched his campaign, he came under fire from rival Tom Elliott over comments made about PSNI GAA player Peadar Heffron.
Mr Elliott accused his opponent of “low-down comments” over Mr Heffron, who was injured in a dissident car bomb attack, and warned the ongoing spat could destroy the party.
With the leadership vote still two weeks away, a major split is now threatening to develop as increasingly outspoken attacks are traded between the rival camps.
This morning Mr McCrea launched his leadership campaign in Belfast, promising a major shake-up of the UUP's structures.
He proposed fighting next year's Assembly elections on a platform that a vote for the UUP is a vote to remove Education Minister Caitriona Ruane.
His speech also included a pledge for internal UUP reforms, including scrapping the party officer team.
But the event was overshadowed by the increasingly acrimonious dispute with Mr Elliott.
Ahead of his campaign launch, Mr McCrea insisted he would not be drawn into a damaging war of words, stating: “Tom is on the wrong side of this argument, but I’m not going to go negative on a party colleague.”
He also refused to respond to Mr Elliott’s calls for an apology over remarks made about Mr Heffron.
Last week, Mr Elliott told this newspaper he had no intention of attending Gaelic matches — and Mr McCrea questioned if this meant his rival would not visit Mr Heffron because of his links with the GAA.
But Mr Elliott accused his opponent of using Mr Heffron’s name — which had been spelt wrongly in his rival’s press statement — as a political tool.
He said: “I could not believe he would use a victim to further his own political ambitions, but to get his name wrong as well is just too much.”
And in an extraordinary counter attack, he claimed to have been deeply hurt by Mr McCrea’s remarks.
“To make these low-down comments that he has, I must say I have to question, for the first time, Basil McCrea as a colleague,” he added.
Amid appeals that the race should not become personal, the Fermanagh/South Tyrone MLA said he now feared the party could be split.
“With this type of campaign I fail to understand how we can have any semblance of a united party at the end of this leadership campaign,” said Mr Elliott.