UUP’s ‘decent man’ Tom Elliott has had enough of relentless hostility
Tom Elliott on Thursday night dramatically quit as leader of the Ulster Unionists, throwing the troubled party into disarray once again.
Mr Elliott announced his departure after less than two years in office, saying he wouldn’t contest the leadership at the party’s annual general meeting later this month.
Earlier this week he had said he would stand for the leadership again. But on Thursday night Mr Elliott said he was “well aware that some people have not given me a fair opportunity at developing and progressing many initiatives”.
“Some of this obstruction and hostility began immediately following my election as leader and has been relentless since then. However, I accept that is part and parcel of politics.”
Generally well-liked and often described as “a decent man”, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA nevertheless failed to project a clear vision or direction for an already confused and divided party.
Members have just a week to nominate his replacement. Last night Danny Kennedy, the party’s only minister, refused to be drawn on whether he would stand.
“Obviously I will take soundings and assess the situation,” he said.
“Tom Elliott has given loyal and dedicated service to the Ulster Unionist Party as he has attempted to restore the political fortunes of our party.
“I think the party owes him a huge debt,” he added.
Mr Elliott became the 14th leader of the once mighty party in a period of long-term decline, which has continued since he took over in September 2010.
David McNarry, who resigned the UUP whip after a public spat with Mr Elliott over talks with the DUP about unionist unity, said he was “not surprised” by the resignation.
“The situation was becoming more inevitable as the days passed by,” he said.
“I did see it coming and I commented to him about it.”
He said he believed the leader had lost the support of the Assembly group in the past week.
“He should stick close to those you know best and that you can trust,” the Strangford MLA added. “There are opportunists in the Ulster Unionists who have no real true brief for unionism, only for themselves. The party is clearly in crisis.”
By the time Mr Elliott took the UUP helm it had lost all its MPs. Under his leadership its ministries at Stormont were reduced from two to one.
A prolonged courtship with the Tories came to grief when Lord Feldman, the Conservative chairman, tired of UUP indecision. He asked Mr Elliott to dissolve and merge with his party.
Only this week a poll showed that the UUP was regarded as the least influential party in the Executive and that more Catholics voted for the DUP than the UUP.
Besides Mr Kennedy, who is regarded as an able minister and political operator on the more traditional wing of the party and who has co-operated with the DUP as a minister, there are other possible contenders.
They include Mike Nesbitt, the high-profile media savvy MLA for Strangford. Last time around Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea stood against Mr Elliott on a liberal and modernising platform.
John McCallister, currently deputy leader of the party, is a liberal who might command wider support.
Mr McNarry could emerge as a dark horse candidate.
There are fears that a divisive public contest, or even behind-the-scenes blood-letting, could lead to defections to the DUP or the Tories, who are relaunching in Northern Ireland next month.