The new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) faced his first resignation today after he was accused of snubbing gaelic games.
Fermanagh Orangeman Tom Elliott was voted in as the party’s new figurehead last night following a campaign in which he pledged never to attend a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) game.
But prominent UUP member and former Ireland rugby international Trevor Ringland, who has also been a noted campaigner against sectarianism, threatened to resign from the party unless his new boss agreed to attend a gaelic football match.
Mr Elliott later said he had worked behind the scenes to help GAA clubs in his local area, but was against public gestures he branded as “tokenism”.
Mr Ringland said: “I would guarantee him that if there is an Ulster team in the all-Ireland final next year I will get him two tickets for that final.
“I want to hear him say in the next few days that if I get him those tickets he will go to that match.
“Because I see people who are reaching out to the unionist community, reaching out to try to build a shared society here and they need encouragement as well.
“They need to see and hear a unionism that actually wants to have a relationship with them.”
Mr Elliott won two-thirds support from the 1,000 UUP delegates who met in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall last night.
He defeated Basil McCrea, who had promised to modernise the party.
Mr Elliott’s traditional unionist message, and his background as a senior member of the Orange Order and a former Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, saw the 46-year-old secure an easy victory.
During the leadership campaign he sought to win grassroots backing by telling supporters he would never attend a GAA event or a gay pride event.
He was heavily criticised for both claims but today said his critics were making too much of the issue.
“I have to say, I am not involved in tokenism,” he said.
“People know in the community that I come from, and this is something I need to get out to the wider community, all the work I do with communities, including GAA clubs behind the scenes... and I will continue to do that work.” He added: “Now that I am party leader I will assess all those issues.
“I am not anti-GAA, but there are still huge difficulties in the community about the GAA.
“And I accept, as someone who is an Orangeman, there are difficulties with parts of the community in Northern Ireland with the Orange Order.”
Mr Elliott succeeded Sir Reg Empey, who resigned as leader after his party’s disastrous General Election.
The party had formed an alliance with the Conservatives and fielded joint candidates, but despite the high-profile support of David Cameron, they failed to win a single Westminster seat in Northern Ireland.
The new leader also told BBC Radio Ulster that the formal link with the Conservatives is over, though he is prepared to discuss new co-operation between the party, beginning at grassroots level.
But the Conservative MP and Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson congratulated Mr Elliott on his victory.
Mr Paterson said: “The Ulster Unionist Party has played a crucial and central role in taking Northern Ireland forward and I am sure that under Tom’s leadership it will continue to do so.
“To be elected to lead your party places a great responsibility on any politician.
“Tom will have my support as we all work to help Northern Ireland face the challenges ahead.”
The new UUP leader is in favour of closer co-operation with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which has become the dominant voice in unionism.
Mr Elliott was a prime mover in the failed plan to oust Sinn Féin Fermanagh South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew. He succeeded in securing an agreed unionist candidate in the General Election, but failed to topple the republican, who held her seat by four votes.
DUP leader Peter Robinson congratulated Mr Elliott on his election as leader.
“The DUP is ready and willing to explore areas of co-operation and unity with our colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party,” said Mr Robinson.
“Time is pressing and hard decisions will have to be made, but for today, I congratulate Tom and send him my best wishes.”