Basil McCrea disciplined by UUP leader for flag comments

Protesters in NI holding union flag Protests have taken place across Northern Ireland after a vote to restrict the flag at Belfast City Hall

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The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader, Mike Nesbitt, has disciplined one of his MLAs for comments he made during the ongoing union flag dispute.

Basil McCrea described a joint decision by the two main unionist parties to take the flag dispute to Stormont's Assembly Commission as a "stupid idea".

Mr Nesbitt claimed Mr McCrea has done "enormous damage" to the party.

The UUP leader said he had "no choice but to remove the party whip" from the Lagan Valley MLA.

Reacting to the announcement, Mr McCrea said he was "surprised" but said his leader was "entitled to make the decision".

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Basil's inability to exercise self-discipline or demonstrate the basic characteristics of teamwork are doing enormous damage to the Ulster Unionist Party.”

End Quote Mike Nesbitt UUP leader

"I stand firm by what I have said and in the way that have I said it," the MLA added.

Violent attacks

Mr McCrea would not be drawn on his future with the UUP and said he would take the Christmas period to think things over.

The flag dispute began on 3 December when Belfast councillors voted to restrict the flying of the union flag at the city hall.

Since then, there have been widespread loyalist protests across Northern Ireland, some of which have resulted in violent attacks on police and property, including the offices and homes of Alliance party members .

In a statement, Mr Nesbitt said: "On Monday, Basil attended the Ulster Unionist Assembly Group meeting, which unanimously empowered our Assembly Commission representative to discuss the issue of flying the union flag at Parliament Buildings.

"Within 48 hours he was quoted in a newspaper as saying 'it was not the right time' to do what he had endorsed. Twenty-four hours later, he described Monday's decision as a 'stupid idea' on live radio."

The UUP leader claimed that Mr McCrea's "inability to exercise self-discipline or demonstrate the basic characteristics of teamwork are doing enormous damage to the Ulster Unionist Party".

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The negative images conveyed throughout the world are destroying jobs, businesses and our prospects for peace and prosperity”

End Quote Basil McCrea UUP MLA

"For the reasons of lack of self-discipline and teamwork, and for those reasons only, he has left me no choice but to remove the party whip with immediate effect," the UUP leader added.

'Disaster'

Following the Belfast City Council decision to restrict the flag at city hall, unionists wanted a consultation process to extend the number of days the union flag is flown at Stormont.

A meeting of the Assembly Commission, the cross-party group that manages the Stormont estate, did not go ahead on Tuesday because there were not enough members present.

Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance boycotted the meeting.

Mr McCrea has been making it clear for some time that he is unhappy with his party's handling of the dispute - in particular the involvement of some Belfast members in the distribution of 40,000 leaflets on the issue, which he believes heightened tension.

The leaflets were delivered in a joint campaign by the UUP and DUP ahead of the flag vote.

Flag leafet distributed by DUP and UUP activists Mr McCrea said leaflets distributed by the UUP and DUP had raised tensions ahead of the flag vote

Mr McCrea told the BBC's Talkback programme: "You cannot take a photograph of the city hall with a flag and a photograph of the city hall without a flag and and put 40,000 of them out in Alliance colours and say 'these people are responsible' and not expect a reaction.

"The reaction they got was very predictable and very regrettable and cannot be condoned."

Before the whip was withdrawn, Mr McCrea said the past two weeks had been a "disaster for Northern Ireland, the business community in Belfast and the pro-union family".

'Reckless'

"The negative images conveyed throughout the world are destroying jobs, businesses and our prospects for peace and prosperity," he said.

Mr McCrea said any decision regarding the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall was "bound to raise tensions" if not "handled with care".

"Political parties in city hall seem determined to obtain maximum short term political advantage with reckless disregard for the future of Northern Ireland," he said.

The Lagan Valley MLA said the situation could have been handled in a better way, and used the example of Lisburn City Council where a similar decision was taken in 2006 without large scale civil unrest.

He called for all-party talks to resolve the flag issue.

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