Unionist grass roots to take key role in leadership poll

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DAVID McKITTRICK

James Molyneaux's successor as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party will be elected on 6 September in the party's own unique way - at a huge meeting of up to 900 people in a Belfast city centre hall.

The election, the first serious contest in the party for 16 years, will take the form of a series of secret ballots until one candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote.

Delegates will come from all parts of Northern Ireland and from a wide spectrum of Protestant opinion. In addition to delegates from constituency associations, votes will also be cast by affiliated bodies such as the Orange Order and the Young Unionists.

Each person will have one vote, which means that Unionist MPs and dignitaries will have the same say as grass-roots representatives. The meeting is convened by the Ulster Unionist Council, formed 90 years ago to oppose Home Rule.

Most of the delegates, between 600 and 700, will come from the 17 parliamentary constituency associations. Few if any of these will be mandated by their associations on how to vote: they have a reputation for making up their own mind.

The slate of candidates will not be known before the meeting. Candidates are proposed and seconded at the meeting, and it is possible for new names to appear at the last moment, or for candidates to drop out.

The constituency delegates are augmented by more than 200 from affiliated bodies, including the councillors' association. The most important of these bodies is the Orange Order, which can send up to 122 representatives, together with a further 12 from the Association of Loyal Orange Women.

Many of the other delegates are also members of the Order, of which the Rev Martin Smyth MP, a candidate, is Grand Master. However, Orange sources say Mr Smyth has many enemies within the Order and can by no means count on all their votes. Three other possible candidates - MPs John Taylor, William Ross and David Trimble - are also members of the Order and will expect to pick up Orange votes.

Mr Trimble, who had said he would not stand, said yesterday he was now giving the matter "active consideration". The other declared candidate, Ken Maginnis, is not a member.

Comments