And he immediately insisted that a resolution to the parading question, to his party’s satisfaction, would be a prerequisite to its involvement in a new power-sharing administration.
Empey was the only one of the three candidates who told the selection meeting that, even if the DUP and Sinn Fein cut a deal, he would not support the UUP joining in the new power-sharing government during the lifetime of the current assembly, which has two years to run.
Unionists had had “a bellyful” of Sinn Fein promises and the number of party voters who would support sharing power with republicans would fit into a phone box, he said. The party had “stretched itself almost to the point of destruction.”
Empey, who is 57, is predicting he will be in the hot seat for about five years and will be concentrating on modernizing the Ulster Unionist Party and seeking tighter internal discipline.
He was elected in the second count with 321 votes. Ex-British Army officer, Alan McFarland, did surprisingly well with 287 votes. Strangford assembly member and leading Orangeman, David McNarry, was eliminated after one count.
Empey succeeds David Trimble who resigned after the party lost all but one of its Westminster MPs in the May general election. He was favorite to win the contest and becomes the 13th leader of the party.
After his election, he said he was under “absolutely no illusions about the difficulties that lie ahead. It’s a mammoth task but we have faced great adversity before and we will meet the challenge.”
The relative narrowness of his victory has left the new leader with a huge challenge to restore the UUP’s fortunes. He has already accepted that the UUP is no longer the “establishment” party and said the formal link with the Orange Order will not be restored.
He said that the party is too old with not enough women members. “The old 1950s style of politics is finished and we need to move on and broaden the base of the party”, he said.
He pointed to the “freezing out” of hard-line MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, from the assembly election team as a serious blunder. “That was the start of the major rift that rocked the party,” Empey said.
He said he would accept the resignation of the party’s entire officer team in the coming weeks. On the link with the Orange Order, he accepted the formal tie was broken, but argued that the UUP shouldn’t “abandon” the order.
On the broader political front, Empey has indicated that he fears the embedding of a new phase of direct rule.
“The (British) government seems prepared to allow the 25 percent Sinn Fein vote to hold back progress for the 75 percent who didn’t vote for them”, he said.
“I suspect direct rule will become what it was in pre-assembly days, and remember what that brought — the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I warn unionists, direct rule is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“Ian Paisley is now leading the larger unionist party, but it’s absolutely essential another large unionist party keeps him under close scrutiny, and points out to the electorate the pitfalls in any deal he might be planning with Sinn Fein.