Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble was today facing the prospect of a more hardline Assembly team as some of his harshest critics in the party were selected as candidates for the next Stormont election.
As the North’s political institutions teetered on the brink of collapse over allegations that the IRA infiltrated the Northern Ireland Office, hardline MP David Burnside and UUP honorary secretary Arlene Foster were chosen as candidates in the constituencies of South Antrim and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Mr Burnside, who was given special permission by party officers, along with Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson, to run for Stormont, was selected last night to fight the election with South Antrim MLA Jim Wilson and Adrian Watson.
Ms Foster, who narrowly missed out on becoming her party’s candidate in last year’s Westminster election, will run in Fermanagh and South Tyrone alongside Councillor Tom Elliot and Donald Beattie.
The UUP holds two Assembly seats in South Antrim but is expected to face a fierce challenge in the constituency from the Democratic Unionists.
The DUP is tipped to switch former South Antrim MP, the Rev William McCrea from his Assembly constituency of Mid Ulster.
The party is hoping to pick up a second anti-Good Friday Agreement seat in South Antrim – possibly at the expense of the Northern Ireland Unionist Party’s MLA Norman Boyd.
The Rev McCrea beat David Burnside in a by-election for South Antrim’s House of Commons seat in September 2000 caused by the death of Ulster Unionist, Clifford Forsythe.
However Mr Burnside avenged his defeat in last year’s General Election, regaining the seat with a 1,011 majority.
The DUP currently holds one Assembly seat in the constituency as does the nationalist SDLP and cross community Alliance Party.
Pro-Good Friday Agreement MLA Duncan Shipley-Dalton announced last month he was quitting Stormont because he could not fight an election in South Antrim alongside Mr Burnside.
The Ulster Unionist Party won two seats in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the 1998 Assembly election.
However the party suffered a shock in the constituency last year, when its Westminster candidate, James Cooper, controversially lost the seat previously held by Lord (Ken) Maginnis to Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew by a mere 53 votes.
A UUP bid in the courts to overthrow the result failed despite allegations that a polling station in the village of Garrison, Co Fermanagh remained open beyond voting hours.
The Ulster Unionists’ two MLAs in Fermanagh and South Tyrone – former Environment Minister Sam Foster and Joan Carson – are retiring at the next election.
Sinn Fein currently has two Assembly seats in the constituency, the SDLP one and DUP one.