Ulster Unionist veteran Reg Empey is David Trimble’s successor as the new party leader following a surprisingly close vote by the party’s ruling council.
The senior party negotiator was elected in the second count with 321 votes, beating former British Army major Alan McFarland ‘grassroots champion’ by 34 votes.
Empey had the backing of more than half the party’s members in the now defunct Belfast Assembly, as well as its MEP, Jim Nicholson.
After the first round of voting, the margin between the two men was just 29 votes. David McNarry, who was the first man to throw his hat in the ring for the leadership contest, was eliminated after the first count.
‘Sir Reg’ succeeds David Trimble who resigned after the party lost all but one of its MPs in the recent British general election.
Empey said the UUP was guilty of “not listening” to its supporters and vowed to change that if he became leader.
Empey’s performance was reportedly nervy during the meeting as he tried to pitch himself as a leader, but a surprise endorsement by hardliner David Burnside ensured his expected victory.
Empey was once seen as a potential peace-maker in the North’s increasingly polarised society. However, he and his colleagues have taken a harder line as their party attempts to regain unionist support lost to Ian Paisley’s openly sectarian DUP.
In his first political remarks following his victory, Mr Empey said that he had promised David Burnside that he would not join Sin Féin in government before 2007.
“I made it clear in my literature that this party will not participate in an executive which includes Sinn Féin in the lifetime of this Assembly,” the UUP leader declared. The call sets up the UUP for opposition against any future power-sharing administration in Belfast involving Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Mr Empey later said his party would not make a definitive judgment on any move by the Provisional IRA to stand down for at least nine months, blaming allegations of IRA activity which have preceded the collapse of peace deals.
“We went into government with republicans on three occasions just to give them time to change their ways and each time they soiled the nest,” he said.
Empey said he was under “absolutely no illusions” about the difficulties that lay ahead.
“It’s a mammoth task but we have faced great adversity before and we will meet the challenge,” he added.