Stormont Assembly member Doug Beattie, a decorated British army veteran, has confirmed he will stand for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Announcing his intention on Monday, just hours after Steve Aiken formally resigned from the role, Mr Beattie – who has been widely tipped to take the job – insisted that the Northern Ireland Protocol must be scrapped.
The Upper Bann MLA claimed his party has an alternative to the controversial clause in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, which has been criticised for placing a de facto trade border between the North and Britain.
“I do not want a hardened border on the island of Ireland. But neither do I want a border in the Irish Sea,” Mr Beattie told BBC Northern Ireland.
Mr Beattie, who is regarded as a progressive on social issues, also said he would be “able to reach out to all people in Northern Ireland regardless of what your religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity is”.
As he announced his resignation at a press conference in Stormont, Mr Aiken said he was "aware of his limitations". He was flanked by party chairman Danny Kennedy, as well as Mr Beattie and Robbie Butler MLA, another person tipped to succeed him.
Mr Aiken, a former submarine commander, said he came to his decision “because, more than ever, unionism, and those in Northern Ireland who believe in the union, need a clear political voice”.
He said the UUP had delivered for the people of Northern Ireland but that, despite its strengths, he was “self-aware enough” to realise the UUP was “not breaking through”.
“I am also very aware of my limitations and, despite successes over the past 19 months, I realise that a change in leadership is needed.”
Meanwhile, Edwin Poots has circulated his "manifesto for reform" to the Democratic Unionist Party's electoral college.
The North's Minister for Agriculture and Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson are seeking to replace Arlene Foster as party leader in the DUP's first ever leadership contest.
In his five-page document Mr Poots pledges to deliver “real and meaningful” changes within the DUP which would put decision-making back into the hands of elected representatives.
He said his manifesto set a “clear direction of travel” that he would immediately take forward on his first day of office and, after consulting with party members on his plans, he would present his package of reforms to the DUP executive for approval by the end of June.
He said he would reinvigorate the press arm of the party to refocus on internal and external messaging, and that an independent review of the party’s staffing model would also be undertaken. – additional reporting PA