The embattled leader of the Ulster Unionists implored people not to define him by his past after receiving party backing to continue in the job despite a controversy over historical tweets.

Doug Beattie said he came “very close” to quitting on Monday when a series of derogatory tweets he posted prior to entering political life came to light.

The Upper Bann MLA faced accusations of misogyny and racism over comments he posted when he was still serving as a captain in the Army.

Mr Beattie said he received the “unanimous” backing of his fellow UUP MLAs and the party’s officers to continue as leader on Tuesday.

The furore erupted on Saturday evening when Mr Beattie tweeted a joke that referred to the wife of political rival Edwin Poots and a brothel.

It escalated after focus turned to Mr Beattie’s historical conduct on Twitter and a series of contentious remarks about women, Muslims, members of the Travelling community, and people with mental health issues were unearthed.

The controversy took another twist on Tuesday when Mr Poots and his wife Glynis issued defamation proceedings against Mr Beattie.

The episode marks a dramatic turn in fortunes for Mr Beattie, who only days ago was rated in an opinion poll as the most popular political leader in Northern Ireland.

In an interview with the PA news agency, the under-pressure UUP politician asked for another chance to prove himself.

Doug Beattie tweets
Doug Beattie has faced questions over his leadership (Liam McBurney/PA)

“People do say that just because you have a past doesn’t mean you can’t have a future but that has to apply to everybody,” he said.

“And what I did in the past was absolutely wrong and I have apologised fulsomely for that but I have to look to see what we can do in the future.”

He denied the sentiments expressed 10 years ago suggested a misogynistic personality trait that he had concealed since entering electoral politics.

“They are not representative of me as a person then, they’re certainly not representative of me as a person now,” he told PA.

“You know those people who know me, those people who work with me, those people who engage with me at every single level will know that that is not the person who’s standing or sitting in front of them.”

He added: “If people are saying that I just polished up an act (when I entered politics), then I would say there are wrong.

“I would say even 10 years ago that would not have been reflective of me as a person. Those people who knew me 10 years ago will know that was not reflective of me as a person and certainly isn’t reflective of me as a person now.”

Doug Beattie tweets
Doug Beattie leaving BBC Broadcasting House in Belfast on Tuesday (Liam McBurney/PA)

The decorated military veteran said that while he was not offering it as an excuse, one explanation for his “dark humour” could be that it was a “coping mechanism” for what he had experienced on the battlefield.

He described how close he came to quitting on Monday.

“I was having real difficulties dealing with and confronting these things from 10 years ago which had been brought up,” he said.

“So an awful lot of it was me looking and saying I don’t feel that I could stay as a party leader. So I spoke to some very close people and asked them for their opinion and they said ‘don’t, you need to stop, you need to think, you need to assess, you need to do an analysis of your thought process and you need to reach out to more people and see where they are’ and that’s what I did.”

Mr Beattie said MLAs and party officers raised serious concerns during his discussions with them on Tuesday.

“Of course there were concerns and everybody wants to distance themselves from those tweets and the truly awful language that I used within them,” he said.

“And, of course, I even want to distance myself from what I wrote 10 years ago.

“This doesn’t just end with people saying we support you to stay as a party leader, this is a continual project that I’m going to have to work on continuously now to deal with this issue.”

He said conversations would continue with other UUP members over the historical tweets.

Mr Beattie said he hoped people would acknowledge that he was trying to be up front and transparent in confronting the issue.

“I have not taken lightly what has happened here,” he said.

“I have taken this absolutely on the chin. I believe in that transparency, I believe in that integrity, I believe in being honest with the electorate so they can look at me and say ‘well, here’s a man when he says something he will go and do it’. And I got something wrong 10 years ago and I’ve apologised for it.

“What I did 10 years ago was fundamentally utterly wrong then, in the same way it would be utterly and fundamentally wrong today. I have apologised. I can’t do any more than that and I look to the electorate to see the sincerity in what I’m saying.”

Mr Beattie said he could not discuss the tweet about Mr and Mrs Poots due to the legal proceedings.

“It was simply wrong,” he said.

Mr Poots has said his wife was “disgusted” by the post, which Mr Beattie deleted and apologised for.

DUP leader Edwin Poots
DUP leader Edwin Poots, pictured, and his wife Glynis have issued defamation proceedings against Mr Beattie (Brian Lawless/PA)

The couple have also initiated proceedings against Conservative MP and chair of Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Simon Hoare, who retweeted Mr Beattie’s joke.

Patrick Higgins, from Donnelly and Wall solicitors in Belfast, told PA that letters had been sent to both men seeking remedies for their actions.

“Today we instigated proceedings on behalf of Mrs and Mr Poots against Mr Beattie MLA and Mr Hoare MP, who published this tweet,” he said.

“This post constitutes a grave and unwarranted attack on my clients’ reputation.

“As a couple of 36 years, married for 33, it has caused my clients profound distress.

“As a lady who has recently retired after dedicating her life as a nurse to caring for terminally ill children, it is wholly inappropriate for any persons to make such comments and the publication has caused immense hurt to her, her husband and their family.”