Ulster Unionist MLA John McCallister has expressed his disappointment after party leader Mike Nesbitt sacked him as deputy leader of the UUP’s Assembly team.
Mr Nesbitt stripped the South Down member of his post after he claimed the party was “sleepwalking” into unionist unity with the DUP.
In response, Mr McCallister resigned as the UUP’s health spokesman.
“If the leader has lost confidence in me as deputy leader I think it’s best for him and the party that I step aside as health spokesman too,” he said tonight.
The 40-year-old father of two made the contentious comments in a speech to a group of Young Unionists on Saturday night at an event to mark the centenary of the signing of the pro-Union Ulster Covenant.
It is understood Mr Nesbitt viewed the remarks as a criticism of his stewardship.
In the wake of his dismissal, Mr McCallister insisted the tenor of his speech was in line with his leader’s own views on unity.
But a statement from the UUP’s Assembly group indicated that the “sleepwalking” phrase was the crux of the problem, with Mr Nesbitt having apparently received a number of complaints from party members about Mr McCallister’s choice of words.
“I am disappointed at the decision of Mike Nesbitt to remove me as deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party’s Assembly group but I accept that he has the right,” said Mr McCallister.
“I made comments in a speech to a Young Unionist dinner to mark the centenary of the Ulster Covenant and I stated that I did not believe unity to be helpful to unionism or to Northern Ireland as a whole.
“I am disappointed at the leader’s decision as I believe that in the majority of my remarks I was quoting from the leader’s speech at the party conference and I remain very supportive of his call to end sectarianism and tribal politics.”
Mr McCallister, who is seen as a liberal voice within the party, lost out to Mr Nesbitt in a two-way contest to succeed Tom Elliott as party leader earlier this year.
In his speech on Saturday, he criticised the number of joint initiatives and press opportunities the UUP and DUP had been conducting of late.
Many of those were related to the build-up to the Covenant commemorations.
Mr McCallister said it had created the impression that the “unionist unity train had left the station”.
He said that “reasonable observers are concluding that the UUP is sleepwalking into unionist unity”.
In recent speeches, Strangford MLA Mr Nesbitt has stressed that a formal link-up with the Democratic Unionists is not on the cards.
A statement from members of the UUP’s Assembly group at Stormont said they supported Mr Nesbitt’s stated view that a united front from the unionist parties was required when it was in the best interests of Northern Ireland, but that the electorate must still have a choice.
“The leader has indicated that following comments made at the weekend he had received many complaints about the use of the phrase ’sleepwalking into unionist unity’,” said the group statement.
“The Ulster Unionist Assembly group is confident that the views expressed by the party leader have the overwhelming support of the entire Party.”
The UUP is now assessing whether the position of deputy leader of the Assembly group is still needed.
The action against Mr McCallister is the latest internal disciplinary wrangle to hit Mr Nesbitt’s six-month tenure as leader.
A recent dispute with former Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Ken Maginnis over his comments on gay marriage eventually saw the veteran figure quit the Ulster Unionists, having been sanctioned for failing to adhere to party instructions on dealing with the media.
Former TV anchor Mr Nesbitt took over the party’s top job pledging to transform its fortunes after years of election failures as both the DUP and cross-community Alliance Party have made gains at its expense.