Ulster Unionist MLAs Robin Swann and Steve Aiken last night emerged as the likely front-runners for the UUP leadership election, which will be held in four weeks’ time.
Mr Swann is seen as representing the more conservative wing of the party, while Mr Aiken is regarded as a liberal. Two other MLAs whose names are also circulating as possible, although outside, contenders are Doug Beattie and Robbie Butler.
And Roy Beggs has been mentioned by some sources.
UUP MP and former leader Tom Elliott yesterday told the Belfast Telegraph that he wouldn’t be throwing his hat into the ring.
While Mr Beattie had initially appeared to have no interest in running, he didn’t rule himself totally out of the race yesterday.
“I think it’s important for me to serve my political apprenticeship before thinking of such a role. It’s still unlikely that I will stand but I will look at what the party needs, and I will talk to colleagues, before making a final decision,” he said.
Mr Butler last night said: “I look forward to meeting with my colleagues at Stormont, taking stock of what happened with the election and determining the best route forward for my party and Northern Ireland.
“At this stage, I haven’t made any other decisions.” The leadership contest will be impossible to predict accurately as up to 700 party members will vote to choose their new leader.
While only senior elected DUP politicians – MPs, MLAs, and the party’s MEP – could vote in its leadership contest in December 2015, every UUP member is free to attend the party’s annual general meeting and vote.
That gathering will be held on April 8 at an as yet undisclosed venue. Much will depend on how individual candidates perform on the day in terms of making their pitch.
The UUP’s 10 MLAs will meet today at Stormont, where Mike Nesbitt will address them for the first time since announcing his resignation.
While the party’s rules don’t dictate that a leader has to be an elected representative, sources said it would be highly likely that Mr Nesbitt’s successor wouldn’t be an MLA.
Three of the four names mentioned as contenders – Mr Aiken, Mr Beattie, and Mr Butler – have a history in public service.
Mr Aiken served in the Royal Navy, Mr Beattie in the Army, and Mr Butler in the Prison and Fire Services.
Only Mr Swann is a veteran party member, with the other three joining in recent years.
There had been speculation that Mr Elliott might put himself forward as an interim leader.
However, last night he said: “I’ve been there before and I won’t be standing again.
“The leader doesn’t necessarily have to be based at Stormont, but it has been recognised in the past that being where the action takes place is the most desirable option.”
The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP paid tribute to Mr Nesbitt.
“I know people have criticised Mike, but he put in a huge effort and did his best,” he said.
“He tried to do what was right for Northern Ireland. It’s not an easy job and it doesn’t always work out – that’s politics.”
Former UUP MLA Danny Kennedy, who lost his seat, said he still hoped to contribute to the party. “When you are beaten, it’s a setback, but my party needs support at this time and I’m happy to offer it,” he said.
Mr Kennedy insisted that there was still a future for the UUP. “We definitely shouldn’t be packing up our bags and disappearing into the sunset,” he said.
“But there needs to be greater unity in future among the unionist parties. We must have conversations with the DUP and the TUV. Closer co-operation between pro-Union parties is essential.”
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