Page last updated at 12:37 GMT, Friday, 5 March 2010

Profile: Sir Reg Empey

By Mark Devenport
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.

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

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

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 gave him the "people skills" to repair a fractured party.

But he alienated his only MP by pursuing an electoral alliance with the Conservative Party which she opposed.

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

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.

Sir Reg is the Employment and Learning Minister

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.

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.

In recent years, there has been a spotlight on the party's political alliances and, in particular, the issue of unionist unity.

In 2008, the party formed closer links with the Conservative Party.

The two parties agreed to select joint candidates in future European and Westminster elections.

But the new alliance proved unpopular with the party's only MP Lady Sylvia Hermon.

Later she declared that she would not stand as a Conservative and Unionist candidate.

Sir Reg said the party were dismayed at her stance.

It also emerged the Orange Order convened secret unity talks between the DUP and UUP in December 2010.

It is understood the parties discussed the possibility of electoral pacts and forming a unionist bloc at Stormont.

However, the party ruled out any merger with the DUP and restated its commitment to its electoral pact with the Conservative Party.

During the intense negotiations leading up to the Hillsborough Agreement, the UUP leader complained about being "sidelined".

Ulster Unionist support for the agreement was seen as crucial, because the DUP has long insisted the wider unionist community needed confidence before a deal could be reached on devolving policing and justice powers.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific