One of the Ulster Unionists’ most seasoned veterans has resigned from the party he served for 50 years in protest at being punished for speaking out against homosexuality.
Lord Maginnis confirmed on Tuesday he was leaving the party just two months after losing the party’s whip at Westminster.
The UUP peer was disciplined over remarks made on the Stephen Nolan radio show in which he claimed homosexuality was “unnatural and deviant”. His comments were condemned by the party leader, Mike Nesbitt, who has sought to modernise the UUP and move it towards the liberal, centre ground in Northern Ireland.
Maginnis’s departure, however, is a blow to the party given the respect he commands, particularly within the UUP’s rural Ulster base.
The 74-year-old from Dungannon served for 18 years as MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone – the constituency represented briefly in 1981 by IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. The former soldier was also the target of repeated republican murder plots during the Troubles and spoke out on behalf of the border Protestant-unionist community that felt under siege during the IRA’s 30-year campaign of violence.
Despite his anti-gay stance Maginnis worked with openly gay members of the UUP under the leadership of David Trimble as they tried to secure unionist support for the Good Friday agreement peace deal. Among Trimble’s closest advisers was Stephen King, who later entered into a civil partnership with his male partner, to the condemnation of the rival Democratic Unionist party.
Reacting to the news of the former MP’s resignation, Nesbitt said: “This is not the outcome I have been seeking – quite the opposite, in fact. On behalf of the party and the unionist people more widely, we owe a debt of gratitude to Ken Maginnis. He was a fearless advocate of the unionist cause, serving the community as a teacher, an officer in the Ulster Defence Regiment as well as a public representative during his time in elected politics.
“He was the sort of progressive unionist I admire. I regret we will not have access to his experience and expertise as we move to rebuild and revive this great party. However, 50 years’ service is a lifetime’s devotion, and I must respect his decision.”