Ulster Unionist Assembly members (MLAs) and party officers have given their unanimous backing to Doug Beattie to remain as UUP leader.
Mr Beattie offered his resignation as party leader on Monday after he was widely accused of using racist and misogynistic language in a series of historical tweets.
In a statement to reporters at Stormont the UUP deputy leader Robbie Butler said Mr Beattie “has the support of the MLA group and indeed the party officers”.
Mr Butler said this was “not to detract from the seriousness or how seriously the party leader takes the incidents that happened.
“What I would like to do is to pay tribute to the party leader for the manner in which he has responded and how serious he takes this issue and these events, and those conversations I know he will be open to over this next while to redress the hurt that has been caused.”
Mr Beattie spent Tuesday afternoon meeting with party officials and MLAs following the eruption of the controversy on Saturday evening when Mr Beattie tweeted a joke that referred to the wife of political rival Edwin Poots.
It escalated after focus turned to Mr Beattie’s historical conduct on Twitter and a series of contentious remarks about women, Muslims, members of the Travelling community, and people with mental health issues were unearthed.
In an interview with PA released later on Tuesday, Mr Beattie implored people not to define him by his past.
“People do say that just because you have a past doesn’t mean you can’t have a future but that has to apply to everybody,” he said. “And what I did in the past was absolutely wrong and I have apologised fulsomely for that but I have to look to see what we can do in the future.”
He denied the sentiments expressed in tweets 10 years ago suggested a misogynistic personality trait that he had concealed since entering electoral politics.
“They are not representative of me as a person then, they’re certainly not representative of me as a person now,” he told PA.
The decorated military veteran said that while he was not offering it as an excuse, one explanation for his “dark humour” could be that it was a “coping mechanism” for what he had experienced on the battlefield.
Mr Beattie said MLAs and party officers raised serious concerns during his discussions with them on Tuesday. “Of course there were concerns and everybody wants to distance themselves from those tweets and the truly awful language that I used within them,” he said. “And, of course, I even want to distance myself from what I wrote 10 years ago.”
Meanwhile, DUP minister Edwin Poots has instructed solicitors to issue defamation proceedings against Mr Beattie over the offensive tweet concerning his wife.
In a statement Mr Poots’s solicitor Patrick Higgins said proceedings were being initiated against Mr Beattie and Conservative MP Simon Hoare, who retweeted the post.
“This post constitutes a grave and unwarranted attack on my clients’ reputation. As a couple of 36 years, married for 33, it has caused my clients profound distress.
“As a lady who has recently retired after dedicating her life as a nurse to caring for terminally ill children it is wholly inappropriate for any persons to make such comments and the publication has caused immense hurt to her, her husband and their family.”
Mr Beattie has apologised for tweeting a joke about Mr Poots and his wife on Saturday night while North Dorset MP Simon Hoare, who chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster, retweeted it but deleted it within a short space of time.
Mr Beattie told the BBC on Tuesday afternoon he was “on the cusp of quitting” as Ulster Unionist leader on Monday and had offered colleagues his resignation.
“I have a few very close friends who rang me because I had withdrawn, and gave me advice.
“I offered my resignation and people said ‘let’s engage and see where we go’,” he said.
Mr Beattie has apologised and said he is “embarrassed, ashamed of myself” and personally is “absolutely destroyed” by the controversy.
He had said he would step down as party leader if the party’s Assembly members or officers felt he should do so.
The series of tweets, which emerged over the weekend, were sent before Mr Beattie – a former soldier – entered political life.
He said the tweets demonstrated a “clear failing in myself, I have to own up to that” and said he asked people to “look at me [as] the person I am now and maybe not judge me from 10 years ago”.
“If the party want me to stay I will still be the leader next week, if they don’t want me to stay I will not be the party leader next week,” he said.
Mr Beattie also said he would now reach out to groups affected by the tweets and speak to them.
He denied being racist an suggested the “dark and black humour” he used may have been reflective of him being “desensitised” by battlefield experiences.
“My mental health has been affected by what I have seen and what I have done,” he said, although Mr Beattie insisted he is not using that potential explanation as an “excuse” for his tweets.
Earlier, Mr Poots had said his wife was “disgusted” after Mr Beattie tweeted the joke about her.
Mr Poots said the tweet by the UUP leader on Saturday was “incredibly hurtful”. Mr Beattie apologised on Sunday for tweeting the joke and deleted it.
The Upper Bann MLA reiterated that apology on the floor of the Assembly on Monday, insisting he was “truly sorry”.
Mr Beattie claimed the joke was not his own and he was sharing something that had been sent to him. Mr Poots had said he accepted Mr Beattie’s apology, but he questioned his “poor” judgment in posting it in the first place.
“I just don’t know what he was thinking about,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“I’m a big boy, I can take a lot of abuse in politics and that’s fine, but we really shouldn’t be drawing other members of people’s families into anything, they have their right to their private life and, unfortunately, that has been infringed when it comes to my family in this instance.”
Mr Poots said his wife Glynis, a nurse, was “disgusted” by the tweet.
“But it’s actually had a bigger impact on the rest of us, her children and myself,” he said.
“Saturday night was the first time our family had been together as a family for four years, because we have two children who are doing voluntary work abroad, and it coincided that they happened to be home.”
He added: “Having her demeaned like that is something that personally I find incredibly hurtful.” Additional reporting: PA