John McCallister fully stands by unionist unity comments

John McCallister John McCallister was stripped of the deputy leadership of the UUP on Monday

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The South Down MLA, John McCallister, has said he fully stands by comments he made in a speech criticising unionist unity.

Mr McCallister was sacked on Monday from his post as deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist's following his speech.

In his speech, Mr McCallister expressed the fear that the party was "sleepwalking into unionist unity".

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt is understood to have viewed sections of the speech as an attack on his leadership.

He said his former deputy was 'wrong' to say the party was walking blindly into unionist unity.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr McCallister said he fully accepted that Mr Nesbitt had the right to change or move people around.

"The speech I gave last Saturday night was, I felt, a very strong Ulster Unionist speech to an Ulster Unionist audience," he said.

"It was probably about 1,500 words and it was a very small section that Mike had issues with.

"The bit in the speech was nothing to do with leadership."

Displeasure

Mr McCallister said he had been contacted by Mr Nesbitt on Saturday after he had read a copy of his speech that had appeared in the Newsletter paper.

"He saw a draft in the paper on Saturday - I knew he wasn't pleased with the speech but I wasn't told not to make speech," he said.

"We had spoken briefly on Saturday and he had read it in the paper - we exchanged text messages on Sunday and I knew he wasn't happy with that part of the speech.

"The speech is still on the party website - to date I have not had anyone who has said anything about the speech."

Mr McCallister said he was called for a meeting with the Ulster Unionist leader on Monday.

"He told me he had lost confidence in me and the assembly group had lost confidence in me, and my role as deputy leader of that group, because Mr Nesbitt took the section about sleepwalking into unity as an attack on him," he said.

"I explained that it wasn't, it was about commentators and the perception out there in the wider public that the party is moving that way, and that there is a problem with mixing the message between what he set out in his conference speech, and which I reiterated, but that that perception was getting lost."

The former deputy leader said he had not sought permission to speak to BBC's The View.

"The general rule is that you get permission or you get clearance so that you can coordinate several things," he said.

"One, so that there are not two Ulster Unionists appearing on the one programme and secondly what the message is, so there is no policy divergence.

"I have not sought permission because there is no policy divergence. I am at one with the vision that Mike set out."

Mr McCallister said he intended to stay in the Ulster Unionist Party and would continue to work on the back benches.

Choice

In the address that he made on Saturday - to mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant - Mr McCallister said recent shared commemorations, shared events and shared statements gave the impression that the unity train had left the station.

He said such a move would deprive voters of choice and entrench tribal politics.

When the pair contested the UUP leadership in March, Mr Nesbitt beat Mr McCallister by a heavy majority, winning by 536 votes to 129.

Three days later, he reappointed the South Down assembly member as UUP deputy leader - a role Mr McCallister had held under the previous UUP leader, Tom Elliot.

His first six months as leader of the UUP have seen two high-profile and long standing UUP politicians leave the party.

In May, Strangford assembly member David McNarry was expelled by a UUP disciplinary committee.

Mr McNarry had been involved in a five-month long dispute with the previous leader, Tom Elliot, over a newspaper interview he had given, detailing discussions between the UUP and DUP about unionist unity.

In August, the former Fermanagh South Tyrone MP, Ken Maginnis, quit the party after a row over controversial comments he made about homosexuality.

Mr Maginnis had been stripped of the party whip at Westminster two months earlier, after describing homosexuality as "unnatural and deviant" on the BBC's Nolan Show.

Resigning, the UUP peer said he had no regrets about making the remarks and claimed Mr Nesbitt's election of as leader had been a "mistake".

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