Tory link adds a dash to UUP annual conference


ANALYSIS: Reg Empey appears to have hitched his Ulster Unionist wagon to a star in Brand Cameron

THERE WAS a genuine buzz of excitement at the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) annual conference in the Ramada Hotel in south Belfast at the weekend, and it's a long time since that happened. Some years ago UUP conferences were also exciting, but only in the shuddering sense of observing a party ripping itself apart over the Belfast Agreement, David Trimble, powersharing, IRA decommissioning and all those other divisive matters.

Reg Empey appears to have hitched his Ulster Unionist wagon to a star in Brand Cameron. David Trimble wandered around the conference room with the air of a man who could be in a Conservative cabinet in a year or two. Other Ulster Unionists might have been thinking they too could have a part to play in a Conservative government. The Tory leader has something, and no mistake.

There were about 700 people at the conference, most of them Ulster Unionists, but some British and Northern Ireland Conservatives as well getting a feel for the party they seem certain to align with in the new year.

"Ulster Unionism needed a Big Idea, and this is it," said a north Down Tory as we stood outside the conference doors waiting for Cameron to make his grand entrance with Sir Reg.

There were many more people at the UUP conference than at the recent DUP annual gathering, Peter Robinson will have noted.

But first, it was also notable that among the audience on Saturday were members of the Department of Foreign Affairs who listened avidly to Mr Cameron's words for signs of potential detachment from carefully-constructed, hard-won solemn British-Irish agreements.

There were concerns that Cameron might upturn the central aspect of the Downing Street Declaration, first enunciated by former Tory Northern Secretary Peter Brooke, that Britain has no "selfish strategic or economic interest" in Northern Ireland. That was the key line that changed the age-old argument, making it clear that primarily it was for the people of Northern Ireland to dictate their constitutional future for themselves.

The foreign affairs officials would have sat up when Mr Cameron used the unscripted phrase in his speech, "It's in my own selfish and strategic interests too." But that was a reference to the proposed alliance between the UUP and the Conservative Party. Still, he was being mischievous in using such a loaded line.

Cameron was careful to balance his pro-union remarks with the commitment that were he prime minister he would "honour Britain's international obligations", that the consent principle was "paramount" and that he would continue to "work closely and constructively" with the South.

So, in real terms there was no specific change of British-Irish policy from Cameron although the emphasis undoubtedly is more pro-union. And remember Tony Blair too protested his pro-union feelings when he launched his peace process initiative shortly after he became British prime minister in 1997. Dublin will understand and can probably live with this shift in focus but nonetheless will be carefully monitoring and parsing all future Cameron speeches in this area. The Dublin advice to Tory HQ will be, if it ain't broken . . .

Cameron's insistence that the "new force" must contest every constituency was a worry for many Ulster Unionists prior to the conference but his galvanising effect on the conference should have swung the doubters.

That insistence puts paid to any pact between the UUP and DUP over South Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone. But, in truth it would be very difficult for either the DUP or UUP to dislodge Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh South Tyrone although a single unionist against the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell in South Belfast would appear to have the advantage.

On Saturday judging by the turnout, and their new-found cut and dash, it seemed like a done deal between the Conservatives and the UUP, although it will be for a special joint committee of the parties to make the formal proposal in January.