Poll defeat heightens Molyneaux's woes

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Ireland Correspondent

Discontent at senior levels of the Ulster Unionist Party with the leadership of James Molyneaux has increased dramatically following the party's disastrous performance in the important North Down by-election.

The contest was easily won by one of the party's most savage critics, independent Unionist Robert McCartney QC. Senior Unionist sources are now saying the time has come for Mr Molyneaux, who is 72, to step down.

Mr McCartney took 10,124 votes, beating Ulster Unionist candidate Alan McFarland into second place on 7,232 votes. Mr McFarland came close to the ignominy of finishing in third place, as the Alliance candidate took 6,970 votes.

Parliamentary seats are of particular importance in Northern Ireland since the region has only 20 full-time paid political posts - its 17 Westminster seats and three seats in the European parliament. Since Reverend Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, andJohn Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, double up in these jobs, there are effectively only 18 salaried political posts available.

The Ulster Unionists not only lost the chance to increase their Commons strength from nine to 10 MPs, but are now joined in parliament by a critic whose speciality has been aiming a scathing stream of invective at the party.

It is difficult to draw wider conclusions from a contest which saw the lowest ever turnout in a Northern Ireland Westminster election, at 38 per cent, but senior Ulster Unionists believe the party has thrown away a winnable seat.

Among the internal criticisms being voiced was the choice of an unknown candidate rather than an established figure, together with allegations that the campaign was complacent and inept. One source said: "This should have been our seat but the party didn't get its act together."

The choice of Mr McFarland automatically made Mr McCartney, a well-known local man, the front-runner. He maintained this position right through the contest, although his campaign developed a serious wobble when he was reported as being ready to take the Labour whip if elected.

The new MP was heavily criticised by the Ulster Unionist Party for contemplating establishing an association with Labour, whose policy is one of favouring Irish unity by consent. His campaign workers said this produced a significant backlash in working-class districts, but they countered it by highlighting Ulster Unionist links with Labour.