The UUP’s disciplinary committee has issued a formal warning to Basil McCrea for what it described as two acts of “indiscipline” in radio interviews.
The sanction will not satisfy his critics, but it is more than a rap on the knuckles. It starts a disciplinary process which could result in his expulsion if he is found to have transgressed again.
However, Mr McCrea’s supporters say the verdict showed the strength of his position.
It was claimed that he breached party policy in an interview with the Nolan Show by backing the December 3 decision of Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union flag on City Hall.
The UUP’s three Belfast councillors had voted against it, but Mr McCrea argued his own view reflected established policy. His party’s councillors threatened to resign unless he was disciplined and party leader Mike Nesbitt withdrew the whip.
Later, two disciplinary complaints were lodged, the second because he described a proposal by Mr Nesbitt to have the Assembly Commission review flag flying days at Stormont as “stupid”.
The committee didn’t say he breached policy, but criticised him for speaking out.
It stated: “Regarding the first complaint, based on comments in an interview Mr McCrea gave to the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster in December, the committee found Mr McCrea was guilty of indiscipline and of speaking in a manner that was detrimental to the party interest.”
A second complaint, as stated, involved his criticisms of a proposal by party leader Mike Nesbitt on flag flying at Stormont.
Mr Nesbitt wanted the Assembly Commission to carry out a consultation but Mr McCrea dismissed this as “a stupid idea”.
On this point the disciplinary committee felt that he had stepped outside policy, though Mr McCrea disputes this.
It said it “considered Mr McCrea guilty of a public attack on party policy and consequently of a further act of indiscipline”.
It added “the committee’s decision regarding sanctions was informed by the fact the party leader had withdrawn the Assembly group whip from Mr McCrea”.
There was no word on if or when the whip would be restored.
Friends of Mr McCrea said he is likely to appeal the decision to party officers, and, if not vindicated, a legal action could follow.
The three Belfast councillors are also not satisfied. Jim Rodgers, said: “We will be meeting to decide our next move.”
He confirmed that resigning the whip was one option.
Mr McCrea said: “I note the comments in the party statement. I believe I have a strong case.”
Basil McCrea has been in hot water with the UUP leadership since December when he described a decision by the two main unionist parties to take the flag dispute to Stormont's Assembly Commission as a “stupid idea”.
Party leader Mike Nesbitt said Mr McCrea’s statements did “enormous damage” to the party and he had “no choice but to remove the party whip” from the Lagan Valley MLA.
The outspoken MLA maintains he was adhering to party policy on flag flying.