By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
The frontrunner to become the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, Doug Beattie, has said he will take soundings over whether the party wants him to take over.
The Upper Bann MLA and military veteran has been widely linked to the job since Steve Aiken announced his intention to resign on Saturday.
The move, coming just 10 days after DUP leader Arlene Foster was forced to quit after an internal party move against her, has thrown political unionism into further turmoil.
The announcement of Mr Aiken’s departure was also prompted by mounting discontent within the party over his stewardship.
At a press conference on Monday to formally announce Mr Aiken’s resignation, Mr Beattie said there had been a lot of speculation over who would take over.
He said: “I will think about whether it would be right for me to stand. I will take soundings if the party want me to be leader and if they want to be led by me and I will make a decision.”
(UUP MLA Doug Beattie)
Also appearing at the press conference was Lagan Valley MLA and former firefighter Robbie Butler, who has also been linked with a bid to be party leader.
But Mr Butler refused to be drawn on his intentions, instead paying tribute to the leadership of Steve Aiken.
Delivering his resignation statement, South Antrim MLA Steve Aiken, a former submarine commander, said that he was “aware of his limitations”.
He said: “I have taken this difficult decision because, more than ever, unionism and those in Northern Ireland who believe in the union need a clear political voice.”
He said that the UUP had delivered for the people of Northern Ireland but added: “I am, however, self-aware enough to realise that our party, despite our strengths, is 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.”
(Robbie Butler, Steve Aiken, and Doug Beattie at Stormont earlier today)
Mr Aiken has said he will stay in position until a successor is found.
Continuing his statement, Mr Aiken said there was a place for a “strong, progressive and inclusive” unionist party in Northern Ireland.
He added: “That party is the Ulster Unionist Party. Our party has delivered for the people of Northern Ireland for many years and, in the centenary of Northern Ireland, continues to do what is right – not just for unionists, but for everyone.
“If anyone doubts our credo of country over party look at how we took the health portfolio when all others avoided it – and I think we are all glad of not just our excellent health professionals, but also for the inspired leadership of Robin Swann.”
He added: “Having been in many command positions before, I know and recognise the critical point when a change is needed, for the greater good and for a reinvigoration of the fight, and that time is now.”
Ulster Unionist chairman Danny Kennedy said the change in leadership in the party would not be carried out in the same way as the DUP.
He said: “Not for us the nastiness of leadership changes carried out in dark corners like the DUP removing Arlene Foster, who frankly was deserving of better.”