Page last updated at 21:34 GMT, Friday, 24 June 2005 22:34 UK

Profile: Sir Reg Empey

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Diplomatic even when he is off the record, studiously polite in an old fashioned way, Sir Reg Empey looks likely to provide the Ulster Unionists with an altogether calmer period of leadership than his predecessor David Trimble.

His supporters say Sir Reg has the "people skills" necessary to repair a fractured party.

Sir Reg Empey on the election campaign trail earlier this year
Sir Reg had been the favourite to take the top post

But Sir Reg's detractors believe he lacks the charisma necessary not just to lead the party but to turn around its current dismal fortunes.

Born in east Belfast on 26 October 1947, Reg Empey's family were retailers, and his uncle was a Stormont Ulster Unionist MP.

After attending the Royal School in Armagh, Empey went to Queen's University in Belfast, where his contemporaries included the future MP Bernadette Devlin.

After graduating he went into retailing, a dangerous trade in 1970s Belfast.

When his Royal Avenue store, which was opposite the army barracks, was destroyed in an explosion, and looted, he expressed his outrage on television.

Sir Reg has been involved in unionism since his student days.

In the mid 70s, like David Trimble, he was a supporter of the hard-line Vanguard movement.

He opposed the power-sharing Sunningdale Executive and played a backroom role in the Ulster Workers' Council strike which brought it down.

He became a Belfast councillor and served two terms as the city's lord mayor.

He participated in the campaign against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

But when Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey visited the city in 1989 to address a business conference, he refused to bow to pressure from fellow unionists to boycott the event.

Instead, he braved loyalist protests to open the conference telling his audience that the taoiseach's territorial claim to Northern Ireland was "not on".

He has been a member of successive Ulster Unionist negotiating teams since the Brooke-Mayhew talks in the early 1990s.

In 1995, he attempted to win his party's nomination to fight the Westminster seat of North Down but lost out to one of his rivals for the party leadership Alan McFarland.

This left him to fight the less promising East Belfast seat.

The DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson, beat him there in 1997 and again this year.

In 1998, Sir Reg played a key role in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement.

The year after the Agreement was signed he received a knighthood and David Trimble appointed him minister for trade and enterprise in the Stormont Executive.

As a businessman himself, he was well liked by local entrepreneurs, and was noted for his efforts to develop a north-south gas pipeline and his attempts to save the Harland and Wolff shipyard.

It is now up to Sir Reg to prove those who claim he is indecisive wrong and to use all his business acumen to turn around the troubled Ulster Unionist plc.

As unionists became increasingly disenchanted with the Agreement, Sir Reg stayed loyal to David Trimble.

But he disagreed with the party's decision to suspend the rebel MP Jeffrey Donaldson after he quit the Ulster Unionist whip at Westminster.

Sir Reg engaged in talks with the Lagan Valley MP which he defended as an "attempt to heal internal divisions".

However, those close to David Trimble believed the two men were plotting a "dream team" challenge to the leader.

The North Down MP Sylvia Hermon made no secret of her disappointment, claiming Sir Reg had done "a great deal of damage to his own reputation".

Sir Reg weathered the criticism. David Trimble made him deputy leader at the assembly.

However, he increasingly appeared to be carving out his own "third way" between the anti-Agreement sceptics and the Trimble loyalists.

In the Westminster election in May, Sir Reg's colleagues - including the potential leadership contender Michael McGimpsey - fared disastrously.

By contrast, Sir Reg put in a creditable performance in East Belfast, assisted by the withdrawal of the Progressive Unionist David Ervine.

That showing put Sir Reg in pole position when David Trimble announced his resignation, although the party's only MP, Lady Hermon, backed North Down colleague Alan McFarland.

Sir Reg's campaign clearly demonstrated a broader swathe of support amongst the party's well known names - former MPs David Burnside and Lord Maginnis rallied to his cause, as did the Euro MP Jim Nicholson.

It is now up to Sir Reg to prove those who claim he is indecisive wrong and to use all his business acumen to turn around the troubled Ulster Unionist plc.

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09 Jun 05 |  Northern Ireland
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07 Jun 05 |  Northern Ireland

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