March 28, 2009 2:00 am

Tension spills into the open as Unite suspends three officials

The seething tension within Britain's biggest union broke to the surface yesterday as Unite suspended three officials, including one senior figure who stood for joint leader last month.

Union sources told the Financial Times that Kevin Coyne, north-west regional secretary, was suspended at lunchtime after he was accused of "breach of confidence" and "bringing the union into disrepute".

Mr Coyne refused to comment last night. But one ally said he had done nothing wrong and accused the Unite leadership of "Zimbabwe-ish" tactics.

The union said yesterday that it never commented on "internal matters". However, one senior official confirmed that the suspensions had taken place.

Last month, Mr Coyne came third in the contest for the leadership of the Amicus wing of the union, which was formed in 2007 through a merger with the T&G.

He won 20 per cent of the vote, against 38 per cent for Derek Simpson, the incumbent, and 25 per cent for Jerry Hicks, the left-wing challenger.

The election was forced by Mr Hicks as a challenge against Mr Simpson staying in post until 2011 - beyond the age of 65.

It was marked by recriminations which were bitter even by the feuding traditions of the labour movement.

The union has even threatened to pursue legal action against The Times for an article, which it claimed had undermined Mr Simpson during the contest.

It is understood that the other two suspended officials are Richard O'Brien and Brian Gallagher, who both work in the communication department for Amicus. Neither returned the FT's calls yesterday.

The suspensions are the latest manifestation of tensions between officials from the two wings of Unite as well as within the Amicus wing.

The union, widely satirised as "Disunite", has denied persistent reports that relations between Mr Simpson and Tony Woodley, head of the T&G wing, have deteriorated since the merger.

However, even after two years the T&G and Amicus still operate out of different headquarters in London and have separate regional officers.

The FT revealed last month that the union had made large paper losses on a portfolio of shares, which had been worth more than £100m at the top of the stock market boom.

The union said the investments were "conservative" and could rise when the market recovered.

One MP with union links said there were fears across the union movement that the paying membership was declining as jobs were lost.

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