Foster meets Tory spokesman for talks


BRITISH CONSERVATIVE party spokesman on Northern Ireland Owen Paterson held talks with DUP acting First Minister Arlene Foster at Stormont yesterday amid continuing speculation about moves to realign unionism.

A senior Tory spokesman said that weekend discussions at Lord Salisbury’s stately Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, England, were “focused on the current difficulties at Stormont” and “not on a hung parliament”.

The spokesman did not comment on speculation that the meeting attended by among others DUP leader and deputy leader Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds, UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy and UUP Assembly member Tom Elliott also addressed the possibility of unionist pacts and realignment.

Mr Paterson could not be contacted last night to comment on his meeting with Ms Foster, which is understood to have considered the current political stalemate over policing and justice and the heightening of the political temperature with the calling of tomorrow’s Sinn Féin ardchomhairle.

Earlier yesterday afternoon, however, a Tory spokesman said the purpose of the Hatfield House talks was to explore how “some of the political instabilities at Stormont” could be overcome. It was also, he added, “to avoid a situation in which we might potentially, should we win the election, inherit a collapsed Assembly and direct rule”.

“That is an entirely responsible role for a potential secretary of state, away from the glare of the media,” he added.

The Hertfordshire gathering facilitated by Mr Paterson fuelled speculation about some form of DUP/UUP/Conservative pact or understanding in relation to the British general election expected by May at the latest. It also triggered speculation of a possible future unionist realignment to try to prevent Sinn Féin winning most seats at the next Assembly elections, and thus being in line for the First Minister post.

“So far as the Westminster election is concerned, the only deal is the current deal between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists,” the spokesman said. “We will be putting up 18 Conservative and unionist candidates at the next election, offering the people of Northern Ireland national politics and the chance to vote for modern, centre-right inclusive candidates,” he added.

Any deal before the general election could create the prospects of unionists winning between 10 and 12 seats, which could be crucial were unionists to hold the balance of power after the election.

SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell’s South Belfast seat would be under threat were there an electoral pact.

He has already accused Tory leader David Cameron of playing the “Orange card” and engaging in electoral “naked sectarianism”.