Unionists to choose new leaders

The loyalist Progressive Unionist Party will today choose David Ervine’s successor as leader.

The loyalist Progressive Unionist Party will today choose David Ervine’s successor as leader.

A meeting of the party executive will take place to choose the new leader following Mr Ervine’s sudden death at the age of 53.

Northern Ireland Policing Board member Dawn Purvis was being tipped by many within the party to replace the East Belfast Assembly member.

Former North Belfast Assembly member Billy Hutchinson has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.

However, it is not clear whether he is willing to take on the role, having stepped back from frontline politics after losing his Assembly seat in 2003.

A PUP source said: “The party is still coming to terms with the loss of David Ervine. Whoever steps into the role of leader will be their own person. David was a one-off.

“However, there is a feeling that the new leader will enable us to start afresh.”

The PUP, which is linked to the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commando, is facing a fierce battle to hold onto Mr Ervine’s Stormont seat at the next Assembly election.

With the electorate in the North due to go to the polls on March 7, party strategists were expecting the battle to retain the seat in East Belfast to be tight even if Mr Ervine had been around.

Party members in the constituency chose Ms Purvis as their candidate for the election and local GP Dr John Kyle to replace Mr Ervine on Belfast City Council.

It is widely expected Dr Kyle will be co-opted onto the city council instead of a by election taking place.

However Democratic Unionist deputy leader Peter Robinson is targeting three Assembly seats in the constituency and it is widely believed the PUP’s seat will be most at risk.

The first item on the agenda for the PUP executive will be whether it should ratify the selection of Ms Purvis as East Belfast Assembly candidate and Dr Kyle as its choice for the city council.

Once it has made that decision, the leadership debate will get under way.

Whoever is chosen as party leader will have to face a leadership vote at the PUP’s next conference in October.

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