UUP's Jim Rodgers has party whip removed over anti-Alliance leaflet storm
Ulster Unionist Jim Rodgers has had the party whip removed and faces a party disciplinary committee over an anti-Alliance Party election leaflet.
In the run-up to the council election, a controversial UUP leaflet in the Ormiston area of east Belfast alleged that the Alliance Party was "closely aligned" with the "IRA's political wing".
The leaflet was widely condemned, with the UUP stating it was not sanctioned by the party.
Party leader Robin Swann announced the disciplinary action against Mr Rodgers yesterday evening.
"When the leaflet was first brought to my attention I said it was language that we would not use, it's language that I would not use and it didn't help the overall interests of the Ulster Unionist Party," he told BBC Radio Ulster.
Mr Swann said he had spoken to Alliance leader Naomi Long on the issue.
"I made my feelings clear to her," he said.
UUP colleague Stephen McCarthy laid the blame for losing his seat on Antrim and Newtownabbey council on Mr Rodgers, while Jeffrey Dudgeon, who lost his seat in Belfast, said it had proved a hindrance and branded it "just silly".
Mr McCarthy also accused the two-time Belfast mayor, one of only two Ulster Unionists to retain their seats on the city council, of "damaging and misrepresenting" the UUP. Meanwhile, Alliance's vote surged.
Yesterday, Mr Rodgers denied accusations that he was responsible for the loss of council seats, insisting he would never knowingly do anything to damage the party.
In response to Mr McCarthy, Mr Rodgers said had been "a loyal Ulster Unionist for four-and-a-half decades", adding that conflating the results of two different councils was like "comparing apples with oranges".
He also "strongly refuted" Mr McCarthy's suggestion that other party members "paid the price for his actions" following a hugely disappointing poll for the UUP, which lost 13 councillors and saw its share of the vote decrease by 2.1%.
Mr Rodgers' running mate in Ormiston, Peter Johnston, lost his seat while Mr McCarthy - the party's most high-profile Catholic representative - was ousted by an Alliance candidate.
Mr McCarthy said earlier this week: "I believe that Jim Rodgers' leaflet cost me my seat. It came up countless times on the doors. The leaflet certainly isn't the only reason for the losses we suffered, but it did inflict significant damage on the party and our candidates."
But Mr Rodgers denied the allegation, saying: "As far as I'm concerned he's saying this because he lost and he's trying to blame other people."
He added: "He quite clearly didn't know what goes on at Belfast City Council. What happened in Belfast is entirely different to what took place in Antrim and Newtownabbey and other councils."
Referring to the fact that Ms Long had thanked him personally for her party's vote going up, Mr Rodgers said: "That's politics and I'm not surprised at her comments. It didn't cause me any concern. I've been a long time in the political arena.
"As far as I'm concerned I can hold my head high. I try and work with everybody, regardless of who they are or what they are."
Some unionists have accused Alliance councillors in Belfast of siding with Sinn Fein frequently in City Hall votes.
Asked about the leaflet, Mr Rodgers, who has been a councillor for 26 years, said: "To me it's a fact that Sinn Fein's military wing is the Provisional IRA."
He added: "We've taken no criticism from the wider community. People have said to me and Peter that they agreed that it's a fact and this cannot be denied.
"I've had a large number of party members and friends contact me saying it's an absolute disgrace that people have been trying to blame me and Peter."
Mr Rodgers, who is the chairman of the east Belfast Ulster Unionist Association, said it was "nonsense" to suggest the leaflet cost the Ulster Unionist Party seats.
"There's just been a tide against the party unfortunately and we were aware of it and unless we take stock and make our minds up about where exactly we're going, we could lose further seats in the future," he said.