Surprise as UUP leader Tom Elliott stands down


THE ULSTER Unionist Party leader caused surprise late last night when he announced that he is standing down from the post.

The Fermanagh-South Tyrone Assembly member had been under pressure because of poor performances by the party in recent elections, and also due to internal party divisions, but nonetheless his announcement last night appeared dramatic and preemptive.

There were expectations that Mr Elliott could face either a challenge from a senior party figure at the UUP annual general meeting at the end of this month, or that a “stalking horse” challenger would emerge to put him under pressure.

The prevailing view hitherto, however, was that he would be prepared to confront any challenge or, at the very least, wait until closer to the agm to test whether he could resist anyone seeking to dislodge him as leader.

But in a statement late last night Mr Elliott effectively conceded that he could no longer maintain the confidence of the party. In announcing that he was standing down he fired a few volleys at those in the party whom he believed had been disloyal.

“I am well aware that some people have not given me a fair opportunity at developing and progressing many initiatives,” he said in a statement. “Some of this obstruction and hostility began immediately following my election as leader and has been relentless since then. However I accept that is part and parcel of politics,” he added.

He succeeded Sir Reg Empey as leader. In September 2010, with strong support from rural members of the Ulster Unionist Party, he defeated Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea for the top position.

The election of the next leader will take place on March 31st. Nominations for the post close next Friday. At this early stage the likely challengers appear to be Strangford MLA and former UTV news anchorman Mike Nesbitt, Mr McCrea, and the party’s only Minister, Danny Kennedy, the MLA for Newry and Armagh.

As leader of the normally relatively moderate UUP, Mr Elliott has had a difficult time in the post, at times appearing to be more hardline than the DUP, which has been colonising the unionist middle ground. He took over months after the 2010 British general election when this once dominant unionist party failed to win a single seat, and after a disastrous link-up with the British Conservative Party.