The leader of the Ulster Unionist party is fighting for his political future after a series of historical tweets emerged that have been condemned as misogynistic and racist.
Doug Beattie said he was “deeply ashamed” about the “horrific” tweets and would consult his colleagues over whether he should step down.
The controversy started at the weekend, when he posted what he said was a joke involving the DUP Stormont minister Edwin Poots, his wife and a brothel.
Poots said on Saturday the tweet was “incredibly hurtful”, and Beattie apologised and deleted it the following day.
Since then, other messages dating back more than 10 years emerged, including comments about women, Muslims and Travellers.
In one, Beattie posted an image of a woman with two Christmas pudding designs on her sweater, saying: “Don’t be wearing a jumper like this then complain when I stare at your boobs.”
Another included a reference to English football supporters dressing in crusader costumes and referenced Muslims being “victims”.
The political storm is a significant setback to the Ulster Unionist party (UUP), which is in contention to seriously dent the Democratic Unionist party as the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland in the assembly elections on 5 May.
A survey at the weekend showed Sinn Féin in pole position to become the biggest single party at 25%, the DUP down one point at 17% and the UUP at 14%.
Beattie, 56, told the BBC’s Nolan Show the tweets are “pretty horrific, pretty horrendous”.
He said the tweets demonstrated a “clear failing in myself, I have to own up to that” and asked people to “look at me [as] the person I am now and maybe not judge me from 10 years ago”.
“If the party want me to stay I will still be the leader next week, if they don’t want me to stay I will not be the party leader next week,” he said.
He added: “I will speak to my MLA [member of the legislative assembly] group today and I will speak to my party officers … if either group feels I should step down then I will.
“Likewise if they think I should refer myself to the party executive or the wider council on a vote of no confidence then I shall do that as well.”
Beattie took over as leader of the party last May and was positioning it as an alternative to the DUP.
He reached out to the LGBTQ community and promised continued dialogue on Brexit issues, striking a defining contrast to the DUP, which has threatened to quit Stormont if the Northern Ireland protocol is not radically changed or dumped.
“I am deeply ashamed, deeply embarrassed by it. I can apologise day and night about this, it wont change what I did 10 years ago,” he said.
“I think people can change. I want to effect change in Northern Ireland. I want to effect change in people and some of that change is within ourselves. I am not the person portrayed in these tweets today. I am not going to give any excuses for it.”
The former soldier denied he was misogynistic or racist, and in a personal statement on Monday urged people to see he was not the man of 10 years ago, saying he had striven to advocate for women ever since he entered politics.
The SDLP deputy leader, Nichola Mallon, said his comments were not funny. “Those who shamelessly and loosely disrespect women only hold us back from equality. These comments are not funny. They are offensive and misogynistic and deserve condemnation,” she said.