The Ulster Unionist leadership contest has descended into acrimony after candidate Basil McCrea launched a stinging personal attack on rival contender Tom Elliott.
Despite appeals that the race should not become personal, Mr McCrea bitterly criticised his opponent over remarks that he had not, and has no intention of, attending GAA matches or Gay Pride marches.
But Mr Elliott branded Mr McCrea’s comments “absolutely ludicrous” and “hugely disappointing” — and said that he was “deeply shocked”.
The so-far lacklustre hustings heated up as underdog McCrea accused Elliott of a “throwback to the fear-mongering days of the past”.
Ahead of the official launch of his campaign bid on Monday, the Lagan Valley MLA said Mr Elliott had inflicted “a painful insult” to the PSNI Gaelic football player Peadar Heffron, who was severely injured in a dissident republican bomb.
As the spat uncovered the fault-lines in the party, senior sources revealed the two men met on Thursday and agreed not to issue statements attacking each other.
“Would Tom Elliott refuse to visit Constable Heffron or his wife and family because of his links with the GAA? Would he have difficulty in calling upon the professional services of a member of the PSNI if that police officer had an association with the GAA?” Mr McCrea asked.
“As politicians we cannot call for the police to be supported by all of the community and then make selective judgments on their suitability based on their sports background.
“The implied message in Tom Elliott’s criticism of the GAA is that somehow those that play those sports are somehow unacceptable in the society of Northern Ireland. I find that viewpoint as totally at odds with those that want a better future for all in our community.”
Mr Elliott hit back: “His remarks are absolutely ludicrous and it just beggars belief. I think it is actually insulting for Basil to come out with this and I am deeply shocked.
“I want to have an inclusive, rather than an excluding, party and was simply asking people to accept and respect that others make different choices. I am a soccer follower. And I am not saying I would never, never attend such an event, I would make a decision at the time.”