Ulster Unionist Party leader Reg Empey has confirmed he is to stand down in the autumn and has called on Peter Robinson to consider his position as head of the DUP.
Empey, whose party failed to win any seats in a Westminster election for the first time in a century, met the British Conservatives at the weekend to discuss the future, the leadership and the electoral link. The party has committed itself to a review of the outcome which will be presented to its annual conference in the autumn when a new leader will be chosen.
Given the loss of Peter Robinson’s Westminster seat in East Belfast, Empey suggested the DUP should also consider a new approach to unionist politics.
“Perhaps both of us could leave the stage and allow a fresh leadership to look at the situation anew, without any baggage,” he said.
“If I can put myself in this position having failed to win a seat I’d never held, perhaps somebody who held their seat but lost it might think about his position.”
On Saturday, the DUP leader was the subject of an apparent attack by his predecessor Ian Paisley, who denounced “Icarus” politicians who “ended up in the sea rather than in a seat”.
Mr Paisley, who stood down as North Antrim MP after 40 years, criticised candidates “who flew too close to the sun of parliamentary expenses”.
Last week, Mr Roblnson received ‘unanimous backing’ from DUP assembly members following the Ioss of his Westminster seat. The defeat followed a year of scandal for Mr Robinson, and his wife, Iris.
Describing the survival of the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice as “unlikely”, Empey appeared to indicate support for a form of unionist unity -- something he believes cannot happen with himself as leader of the Ulster Unionists and Mr Robinson heading the DUP.
“There is an opportunity now to have a fairly clean slate - with a new leadership - to look forward to the next decade because we’re going to have to think as unionists long-term, not short-term,” he told the BBC on Sunday.
“Republicans look at it in terms of generations and I think we’ve got to start looking at it the same way.”
Empey added that unionist unity meant different things to different people and he was not a supporter of the idea of simply “bolting together” the UUP and DUP.
Referring to Sinn Fein’s victory in Fermanagh/South Tyrone over a unionist unity candidate, he added: “The lesson of Fermanagh South Tyrone needs to be learned. If you are going to have co-operation it is going to have to be based on values and policies, not simply rolling everybody together into a room on a sectarian headcount basis... That’s the best circumstance in which a review should take place.”
But DUP MP Sammy Wilson said calls for Peter Robinson to stand down were a desperate attempt to deflect attention from the crisis in the Ulster Unionist Party.
“The fact is Reg has presided over the UUP losing its presence at Westminster which the UUP has had for decades. Rather than clawing back ground which was lost under Trimble, Reg has allowed the situation to get worse.”
Both unionist parties are under pressure to make progress in preparation for next year’s Assembly poll aware that Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party, thus entitling Martin McGuinness to take the First Minister’s position.