Page last updated at 12:57 GMT, Thursday, 2 June 2005 13:57 UK

Sir Reg 'waiting in the wings'

Gareth Gordon
by Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

For a man seen by one party colleague as "comfy" - not meant as a compliment - life for Sir Reg Empey may be about to become very uncomfortable indeed.

He is 57, just three years younger than his now departed former party leader David Trimble.

After decades of experience in public life which have seen him as a member of various Stormont chambers, twice Belfast's lord mayor and a minister in the failed Stormont Executive, perhaps he should be thinking of taking things easier.

Yet he is thought to be on the verge of declaring himself ready for the most difficult job in British politics - leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Sir Reg 'on verge' of entering the Ulster Unionist leadership race

As befits a man who might be about to take a bite from a poisoned apple, he has taken his time. But close colleagues have told him he can wait no longer.

There is talk of a room already booked for a high profile news conference early next week.

It will be packed with supporters who are known to include high profile party figures like MLAs Fred Cobain, Danny Kennedy, and Roy Beggs Junior, as well as another former lord mayor, Jim Rodgers.

There will also be several younger party members all of whom are thought to have indicated their backing.

"There's no point in Reg standing there with his hand across his mouth whispering that he wants to be party leader," says one prominent supporter.

"He's got to go in there and blow the others away. If there are 50 chairs in the room, we've got to pack it with 150 people. We have got to present something new."

So far, the only runner to declare his hand officially is the former MP, Lord Kilclooney, who has written to members saying he would be prepared to do the job on an interim basis until the party's annual meeting next March.

However, there appears to be a firm opinion from the internal party consultation, which has been going on since the election, that an interim leader is not acceptable.

Another former MP and peer, Lord Maginnis, has also indicated he would be prepared to fill the post - possibly with the help of younger figures like Basil McCrea who contested Lagan Valley in the general election.

The only runner to declare his hand is former MP Lord Kilclooney

Some sources believe that both men would be prepared to stand aside if Sir Reg finally declares an interest in becoming leader.

David Burnside, who lost his South Antrim seat in the general election, has ruled himself out and is backing Lord Kilclooney. But sources close to him indicate he would have no problem with an Empey leadership.

That leaves the Strangford MLA David McNarry, who has also written to members, declaring an interest. He is currently on holiday and is thought to be considering his position.

And a new runner has emerged - the North Down MLA Alan McFarland who says he has been approached to stand and will consider his position over the next few days.

But none of this changes the fact that Sir Reg Empey remains the clear favourite for the titanic task of dragging the Ulster Unionists off the canvas, at least to the point where they can offer the DUP some opposition.

He is still regarded by many as having been disloyal in the summer of 2003 when he was accused of plotting with Mr Donaldson to depose David Trimble

In his favour is the fact that he can probably attract support from across the party.

He has few real enemies and is seen as as a unifier - he distanced himself from the disciplinary action against the three MPs Jeffrey Donaldson, Martin Smyth and David Burnside, which went disastrously wrong and hastened the party's demise.

Against him is the fact that he is seen by some as a ditherer who lacks "bottle".

He is still regarded by many as having been disloyal in the summer of 2003 when he was accused of plotting with Mr Donaldson to depose David Trimble.

Others say that, as the party's chief negotiator, he should carry the can for making too many concessions to Sinn Fein.

For the moment, he is saying nothing. However, nonetheless, it is thought that he could carry the Ulster Unionist Council which meets on 24 June to elect a leader. Or, to quote one source: "Who else is there?"

It remains to be seen if they will also be electing a new team of party officers. One attempt, led by Jim Rodgers and Fermanagh councillor Bertie Kerr, to force the officer team to stand down, has already failed.

But there is still fierce criticism of the role played by people like the party chairman, James Cooper and president, Lord Rogan.

"You can't just replace the head and keep the body," says one Empey supporter.

But it is clear that whoever leads the party they will have to deal with the continuing fallout from the two elections on 5 May which saw the party lose four of its five Westminster seats and 39 councillors.

'Harsh' reality

Back on 5 April - the first day of campaigning - Sir Reg said he did not believe that people in Northern Ireland wanted a country "carved up" between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. On the unionist side, at least, the electorate firmly disagreed.

The results finally brought that reality home to a party leadership which seemed to have ignored the writing on the wall for far too long.

The DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson, has already declared the Ulster Unionist leadership race "irrelevant".

Of course, he would like the party's fortunes to decline even further so that many more of the 127,314 people who voted for the UUP in the general election - keeping it the third largest party in terms of the percentage vote - will shift their allegiance to the DUP.

If Peter Robinson is not to be proved right, the Ulster Unionist fightback must begin now.

For the victor on 24 June - whoever it is - being elected party leader will be the easy bit.

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