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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 February 2007, 08:27 GMT
Profile: Sir Reg Empey
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

When Sir Reg Empey succeeded David Trimble as Ulster Unionist leader in June 2005 he knew he would have his work cut out.

Unlike his predecessor, Sir Reg was neither a Nobel Prize winner nor an MP.

Sir Reg Empey
Sir Reg has a "studiously polite" style

Moreover, he was taking over a party in shock after a clear election defeat at the hands of the DUP.

From having 10 MPs in 1997, the Ulster Unionists slumped to a single survivor in the House of Commons in 2005 - with only Lady Sylvia Hermon hanging on in North Down.

Sir Reg's challenge has been to carve out a role on the sidelines for a party which, for decades, assumed it would always be the dominant force in Northern Ireland politics.

Resentful at what they see as the DUP stealing their clothes, the Ulster Unionists have had to perform a balancing act, criticising DUP tactics without alienating moderate unionists who favour stability and agreement.

His supporters say Sir Reg's studiously polite style gives him the "people skills" to repair a fractured party.

But he did run into strong internal criticism for considering an assembly alliance with the loyalist Progressive Unionists.

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, Sir Reg went to Queen's University in Belfast, where his contemporaries included the future MP Bernadette Devlin.

Once he graduated, 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 pledged to continue trying to bring the UVF and the UDA out of the political cold arguing that completing that task would provide a suitable legacy for loyalism's lost leader

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 in 2005.

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.

Samson and Goliath are a symbol of Belfast's history
Sir Reg was noted for his attempts to save the Harland and Wolff shipyard

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.

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".


When David Trimble stood down as party leader, Lady Sylvia backed her North Down colleague Alan McFarland.

But 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.

In 2006, Sir Reg surprised observers by agreeing a deal with the late David Ervine, the East Belfast assembly member whose Progressive Unionist party is linked to the UVF.

The assembly arrangement promised to secure the Ulster Unionists an extra ministerial seat in a future executive.

But some party members, like Lady Sylvia Hermon, regarded any link with the UVF as unacceptable at a time when their ceasefire was not recognised. Some UUP members resigned over the deal.

However, the assembly arrangement was ruled out of order by the Stormont speaker.

Then there were plaudits from all political quarters for David Ervine when the PUP leader died after suffering a heart attack in January 2007.

Sir Reg pledged to continue trying to bring the UVF and the UDA out of the political cold, arguing that completing that task would provide a suitable legacy for loyalism's lost leader.





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