DUP, UUP and Tories meet for secret talks on strategy
A SECRET meeting between the DUP, Ulster Unionist Party and the Conservatives in England at the weekend has triggered speculation about a possible major realignment of unionism.
While the DUP and Sinn Féin remained locked in negotiations at Stormont late last night aimed at achieving a breakthrough on policing and justice, there was a shifting of the political focus because of the DUP/UUP/Tory talks at Lord Salisbury’s Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.
DUP leader Peter Robinson, deputy leader Nigel Dodds and Finance Minister Sammy Wilson joined in discussions with the Conservative spokesman on Northern Ireland Owen Paterson and with UUP Assembly members, deputy leader Danny Kennedy and Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott.
None of the participants was providing any specific detail last night but a number of unionist sources said that even the possibility of unionist/Tory “mergers or realignments” could have an effect on the balance of the talks. Any pact ahead of the Westminster elections expected by May could damage the prospects of SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell holding his South Belfast House of Commons seat and possibly threaten Michelle Gildernew’s Sinn Féin seat in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
More importantly any more formal realignment established ahead of Assembly elections would undermine the prospects of Sinn Féin winning enough seats to take the First Minister post, as is decidedly possible in the current uncertain political climate.
Hitherto, one of the reasons put forward for the DUP striking a deal with Sinn Féin was that any Assembly elections precipitated by the collapse of these negotiations was likely to leave Sinn Féin with the most seats. But a realignment involving the DUP, the UUP and the Conservatives could put such a unionist bloc in the political driving seat.
Danny Kennedy of the UUP confirmed the meeting took place and indicated strategies were being considered that would be to the advantage of unionism in general.
“We do not propose, however, to go into any kind of detail in relation to that [the talks] except to say we considered both the short-term, medium-term and long-term interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland,” he said. He also indicated that “further or enhanced” talks would take place.
Mr Paterson is due at Stormont today for talks with acting First Minister Arlene Foster.
A deal could also have benefits for the Tories were there to be a hung parliament after the Westminster elections. Up to 12 unionist MPs voting Conservative could be crucial in such circumstances. But such is the longstanding rivalry between the DUP and UUP that moving from realignment talks to actual agreement will be problematical.
Dr McDonnell who took what had been the safe unionist seat of South Belfast in the 2005 British general election yesterday accused Tory leader David Cameron of “engaging in naked sectarianism and exploiting the policing and justice crisis to play the Orange card”. “Everyone can see this for what it is, a cynical attempt by the Tories to grab a few Orange votes ahead of the forthcoming Westminster election.