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'Intra-unionist struggle' in wake of Doug Beattie controversy won't harm Sinn Féin bid to be biggest party, says Brian Feeney

UUP leader Doug Beattie leaving BBC Broadcasting House, Belfast, after a radio interview with Stephen Nolan discussing Mr Beattie's historic tweets. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire 

SINN Féin's bid to be Stormont's largest party will be unaffected by the "intra-unionist struggle" that will play out in the wake of Doug Beattie's social media scandal, according to a leading commentator.

Historian Brian Feeney said that while the controversy over the Ulster Unionist leader's historic tweets was likely to damage his party electorally, it wouldn't necessarily translate into votes for the DUP.

His remarks came as Mr Beattie's Stormont team yesterday gave their leader unanimous support.

The Upper Bann MLA, who had earlier confessed to being "on the cusp" of quitting, faced accusations of misogyny and racism over a series of historical tweets.

He was already at the centre of a political storm over a joke he posted on Saturday night, which made reference to Edwin Poots' wife.

The UUP leader yesterday took to the airwaves to provide an explanation for the unsavoury tweets, the majority of which dated from his time as a British Army captain.

He later met each of the party's MLAs individually at Stormont before also meeting party officers and chairman Danny Kennedy.

Strangford MLA and former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt last night told The Irish News that the "sincerity and depth" of his colleague's apology had enabled him to offer his support.

"The tweets were unacceptable but the manner in which Doug apologised is what swung it for him – we are all human beings after all," he said.

There was support elsewhere from within the party ranks, with former Belfast PUP councillor Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston saying there was "no other leader I trust more with my children's future than Doug Beattie".

Naomi McBurney, the party's North Down assembly candidate, said she respected Mr Beattie, praising the way in which he spoke on radio about his past.

"It was a hard listen and I doubt few others would have done the same," she said.

Speaking at Stormont after the meetings, he said he had apologised to each of the party's MLAs and in return received their overwhelming support.

"I apologised for what I had done directly to each one of them and then I spoke (about) whether or not I still had their support to remain as party leader - overwhelmingly every one of them said 'yes, I did'," he said.

Mr Beattie said conversations would continue with other UUP members over the historical tweets.

UUP deputy leader and chief whip Robbie Butler confirmed MLAs' support for Mr Beattie in statement read out at Stormont.

He said that while his leader had the support of the MLA group and the party officers, it did not "detract from the seriousness or how serious the party leader takes the incidents".

"What I would like to do is to pay tribute to the party leader for the manner in which he has responded and how serious he takes this issue and these events and those conversations I know he will be open to over this next while to redress the hurt that has been caused," he said.

A weekend opinion poll from Lucid Talk had ranked Mr Beattie as the best performing Stormont leader.

Mr Feeney said he believed the UUP had been "damaged" by the episode, which comes three months ahead of a Stormont election.

Brian Feeney

"This is an intra-unionist struggle – the UUP will be down to their core vote but that doesn’t mean automatically switching to DUP," he said.

"Many potential UUP voters will visit a garden centre rather than vote DUP – Sinn Féin will still remain on target to be the largest party."

Slugger O'Toole deputy editor David McCann said Mr Beattie's difficulties would be "of greatest advantage to Alliance" but also help the DUP.

"Alliance was battling with Doug for the progressive vote and this controversy can only help sway voters their way," he said.

"The anticipated attacks by Alliance on the UUP may also help the DUP remain unionism's largest party."

 

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