Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt rules himself out of UUP leadership race due to heart condition

Mike Nesbitt MLA
Mike Nesbitt MLA

By Suzanne Breen, Political Editor

Former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has ruled himself out of the race to succeed Robin Swann and has revealed he’s suffering from a heart condition.

The UUP leadership contest, which was due to take place in February, has been brought forward and will now be held next month.

Mr Nesbitt had been considering whether to throw his hat into the ring. But he told the Belfast Telegraph that a heart problem meant he wouldn’t seek another tilt at the leadership.

He revealed that he had been diagnosed with a heart condition and had two stents inserted in 2015.

He said he was told at a recent hospital appointment to “avoid stress at all costs and unfortunately that isn’t compatible with being Ulster Unionist leader”.

Mr Nesbitt said he had been “highly flattered” by the number of people encouraging him to attempt a comeback as UUP leader.

“By coincidence, I had a coronary review in the last few days and while I feel fine and capable of performing my MLA duties, leading the UUP may be a step too far,” he said.

“The last thing it needs is a leader who isn’t physically up to the challenge, because believe me, it has its moments! I need to put the party’s needs above any egotistical temptation to make a return.”

The Strangford MLA added: “I just wanted to explain all this to those hoping I might put my name forward for the leadership.

“It’s important to me they understand my refusal wasn’t because I couldn’t be bothered. I had been looking forward to opening the next conference speech with ‘I hadn’t gone away, you know!’”

Outgoing UUP leader Robin Swann
Outgoing UUP leader Robin Swann

Mr Nesbitt was UUP leader from 2012 until 2017 when he stepped down after his party polled poorly in the March election.

During the campaign, he had controversially pledged to give his second preference to the SDLP.

Mr Nesbitt is firmly on his party’s liberal wing. His decision not to run again will increase pressure on his close friend, Upper Bann MLA Doug Beattie, to stand.

Mr Beattie has said he will consider running but will “take soundings within the party and see what support there is”.

South Antrim MLA Steve Aiken has already declared his candidacy.

Mr Swann, who succeeded Mr Nesbitt in 2017, announced a fortnight ago that he was stepping down as the job was having an impact on "his role as a husband and father".

The new leader was to be elected at the party’s annual general meeting in February.

But last night, Mr Swann said he was bringing forward his departure date.

“After consultation with family and close colleagues, I have informed the party chairman Lord Empey that the process to select my successor should be brought forward.

“The Ulster Unionist Council will meet on Saturday 9 November at the Hilton hotel in Templepatrick to select a new party leader.”

The UUP has likely moved the date forward because of an imminent Westminster election. Going to the polls with Mr Swann effectively a lame duck leader would be detrimental to the party at a time when the DUP could be electorally vulnerable.

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