Northern Ireland news

'Sad and upsetting' to see Jim Rodgers sanctioned says UUP's Sonia Copeland

Ulster Unionist councillor Sonia Copeland, and inset, with fellow Belfast UUP councillor Jim Rodgers
Brendan Hughes

ULSTER Unionist veteran Jim Rodgers being sanctioned for a controversial election leaflet that attacked Alliance is "sad and upsetting", his sole remaining party colleague on Belfast City Council has said.

Sonia Copeland said the UUP's poor council election performance "can't be blamed on any one person" and the party needs time to evaluate what went wrong.

Mr Rodgers, a former Belfast lord mayor, has had the party whip removed and been referred to the UUP's disciplinary committee.

It follows a controversial election leaflet in east Belfast which claimed the Alliance Party was "closely aligned" with the "IRA's political wing".

The leaflet has been portrayed as a damaging own goal by some UUP reps who have part-blamed it for their failure to get elected.

But Ulster Unionist veteran David Browne, who lost his seat in north Belfast, claimed Mr Rodgers was being made a "scapegoat".

The UUP suffered a series of losses in last week's council elections while Alliance saw its vote surge.

In Belfast, the UUP returned seven councillors in 2014 but now its number has plunged to just two.

Mr Rodgers and Ms Copeland were the only Ulster Unionists to retain their seats at city hall.

Ms Copeland said she would not comment on the election leaflet or the decision relating to Mr Rodgers while the disciplinary committee probe was continuing.

"At the end of the day there is a disciplinary committee set up to investigate what has happened and I have to let that committee do their job," she said.

But on Mr Rodgers, she said: "I think it's very sad and upsetting for a long-serving member that this has happened to him.

"Again I'm not getting down into it. I need time to reassess what exactly has happened and I will be taking a few days to assess everything that has happened with the election."

Ms Copeland said she "learnt so much" from Mr Rodgers since she joined the council in 2014.

"I just think it's a sad time for unionism and a sad day for Jim," she added.

The former deputy lord mayor said she hoped the UUP disciplinary committee would "deal with it quickly and that it doesn't linger on for months upon months".

Describing the UUP's election result as "disappointing", she said: "Really now I think it's about letting the shock sink in and get back to work, and work for the people who voted.

"Nobody wants to see that happen to their party group. I was in city hall this morning and watched one of my colleagues tidying out his cupboards and it was quite emotional."

She added: "Personally I think the election result can't be blamed on any one person.

"We need to look at our performance and what we need to do to change things. We need to reassess that."

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