Sir Reg Empey confirms resignation
Outgoing Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey has formally confirmed he will step down as the party's figurehead next month.
His resignation was already on the cards after a disappointing general election, but party chairman David Campbell said Sir Reg had now officially confirmed his decision to resign on September 22.
The announcement means the race for his successor can begin in earnest.
Sir Reg took the leadership of the party in 2005 with the intention of challenging the growing power of the Democratic Unionist Party, but a ground-breaking electoral alliance with David Cameron's Conservatives failed to excite voters.
The once mighty Ulster Unionist Party ended the recent general election campaign without a single MP.
But on Monday Mr Campbell praised Sir Reg's contribution to the party, saying: "His period of leadership of our party has produced the reform and modernisation of our structures which eluded his predecessors, and he has restored financial stability to our organisation and undoubtedly moved the UUP and Northern Ireland closer to mainstream British political life."
Sir Reg will continue to carry out the functions of leader until a replacement is elected at a meeting of party members planned for Belfast's Waterfront Hall on September 22.
The current favourite to take over from Sir Reg is Fermanagh-South Tyrone Assembly member Tom Elliott. The rural representative is a leading Orange Order member and has already received the backing of a number of senior figures in the party. Mr Elliott is likely to favour closer cooperation with the Democratic Unionists, having been one of the chief architects of the deal to agree a joint unionist candidate in his own constituency in the general election, though the move failed to unseat the sitting Sinn Fein MP.
He is expected, however, to face a challenge from Basil McCrea from the Lagan Valley constituency close to Belfast. Though a fairly recent addition to Ulster Unionist ranks at the Assembly, he has secured a high profile and is a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board which oversees the policing service. Though ranked as an outsider, he is seen as a would-be moderniser of the party.
Nominations for the leadership contest close on August 31.