Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Former big beast scents blood over pivotal gay row

Lord Maginnis was branded a 'dinosaur' for his remarks about homosexuals. But it could be Mike Nesbitt's UUP leadership that faces extinction, says Alan Murray

Who dares wins is the motto of the SAS and its import will not be lost on an ex-military man like Ken Maginnis.

Whether he set out to hole the good ship UUP below the waterline this week, he could hardly have assisted its onward journey when he termed Mike Nesbitt's elevation to the leadership as a "mistake".

The difficulty for Nesbitt - and it could become an insurmountable difficulty - is that Maginnis still wields considerable clout within the grassroots of the party in Fermanagh and west Tyrone.

It's a sizeable lobby that secured Tom Elliott's brief - and fateful - leadership of the party and one that played a pivotal role in the securing of the leadership for Nesbitt - an exercise that Maginnis admits he assisted.

Now, deeply regretting this contribution, Lord Maginnis has succeeded in undermining the former television anchorman, casting doubt on his leadership just weeks before the party's annual conference. Inside a building bearing the Titanic name, that sinking feeling may not be far from delegates' minds.

Maginnis represents that generation of unionist voter who condemns homosexuality outright - however politically incorrect harbouring that sentiment may be considered today.

Those who grew up with Maginnis and journeyed with him through the ranks of the Ulster Defence Regiment (he rose to the rank of Major) and through the Ulster Unionist Party in the 1970s and 1980s will almost certainly concur with his observations about homosexuality and gay marriage.

It may be a generational thing, which a younger element in the UUP eschews, but, for the older generation, it could prove a pivotal issue in determining whether they remain in the party or jump ship.

It could prove a fatal watershed for Ulster's longest-functioning unionist party if Maginnis - one of its few remaining big beasts - inflicts a mauling on Nesbitt's leadership in the days leading up to the annual conference.

Nesbitt will remain fearful right up to - and after - the party conference that the former teacher, B Special, soldier and parliamentarian of more than 30 years will land a blow from the Fermanagh lakelands which will render the UUP unelectable.

It's not just Maginnis and the gay issue that Nesbitt has to tackle; the thorny issue of whether to combine with the DUP and agree a joint unionist candidate to try to wrestle the Mid-Ulster Westminster seat from Sinn Fein is another.

But it is Maginnis and his issues with Nesbitt that will stalk the Titanic party conference next month.

Nesbitt has gathered around him a younger entourage of movers and fixers to try to manipulate public and party opinion in his favour, and it hasn't gone down well that some long-time servants have got the chop as Nesbitt's broom sweeps clean.

The still-active element of Maginnis's generation within the party disparagingly label the replacements as "Nesbitt's lackeys" and dismiss them as "blow-ins" who will be gone after the next Assembly election.

It may be a decade or more since Maginnis decided to relinquish the Fermanagh-South Tyrone seat he had held for 18 years and move to the more sedate surroundings of the House of Lords.

But, whatever the merit, or justification, for his comments on homosexuality and gay marriage, many veteran party members privately endorse his assessment of Nesbitt.

It was Maginnis and a few other 'bruisers' within the UUP who stood four-square with David Trimble to take on the DUP and ensure the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by the party.

His abrasive style of politics was not everyone's cup of tea, but it served Trimble well as he struggled to keep the party together and hold the pro-Agreement line.

It was Maginnis who first grasped the nettle of debating with Sinn Fein, when he crossed swords with Gerry Adams in the US on the Larry King Show in October 1994.

"If someone is sitting on over 100 tons of arms, how on earth do you trust them? You don't enter the democratic process with some seven surface-to-air missiles, with 1,200 assault rifles. That's not the way to do it," he predicted.

He was proved right over decommissioning, but whether his broadsides against Nesbitt - from whom he is utterly estranged - will lead to the decommissioning of yet another UUP leader, again, only time will tell.

It is probable that the likes of Sandra Overend and Jo-Anne Dobson, who represent the new younger, image of the Ulster Unionist Party, will rally around Nesbitt's standard in the weeks ahead.

But Baron Maginnis of Drumglass, while less mobile, retains the capacity to cast doubt on Nesbitt's leadership credentials - as he has shown this week.

He does not elicit support from as many sections of the party as he once did, but Maginnis still generates an image of sincerity for many of the party faithful whom Nesbitt must win over.

When he resigned as an MP in 2001, Maginnis uttered a defiant message: "I have no intention, if God spares me, of going away."

Charting his course around his former ally is now Nesbitt's Titanic mission.

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