Tory concerns over prospects of successful UUP merger


SOME SENIOR Tories are voicing serious doubts about the prospects for a successful Conservative merger with the Ulster Unionists offering "a new political force" in Northern Ireland.

Conservative leader David Cameron and shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson remain committed to ongoing negotiations about the project, which Mr Cameron announced with UUP leader Sir Reg Empey in the summer.

However, some previous Conservative backers have confirmed their doubts in light of reports this week of talks between Sir Reg and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister about a possible unionist voting pact in next year's European election.

"The whole point was to move away from sectarian and tribal politics," one well-placed Conservative told The Irish Timesyesterday.

"He certainly won't want to be seen working with anti-agreement unionists."

Mr Cameron's courtship of the Ulster Unionists has already incurred the displeasure of the DUP, which, with nine MPs in the current House of Commons, might hope to play an influential role in any tightly-balanced parliament following the next general election.

Despite Mr Cameron's potential dependence on DUP votes at some future point, Conservative sources have also indicated that the controversy provoked by DUP MP Iris Robinson's views on homosexuality has cemented the view that "Cameron's Conservatives" could not contemplate any sort of permanent relationship with the DUP.

Ironically, then, that the first serious Conservative doubts surfaced yesterday on foot of Sir Reg's talks with Mr Allister, who resigned from the DUP under the Rev Ian Paisley's leadership in opposition to the 2006 power-sharing deal with Sinn Féin.

The source likened this week's discussions about a pan-unionist approach to the European election as "ineptitude along the lines of the earlier attempt to include the PUP within the Ulster Unionist Assembly Party".

Uncertainty about Sir Reg's own disposition has been fuelled by his reported comment to the BBC in reference to the ongoing talks with the Cameron leadership, saying: "We are not dead, and we have these talks going on.

"If they work, they work, if they don't, they don't."

Internal unionist calculations have also been unsettled by renewed expressions of support for prime minister Gordon Brown's handling of the current economic crisis by the UUP's only sitting MP Lady Sylvia Hermon.

While declining to comment publicly on the proposed new "Conservative and Ulster Unionist Party" until the completion of the current discussions, seemingly authoritative press reports this week have said that the North Down MP will not take the Conservative whip at Westminster.

At Westminster yesterday, Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward explicitly accepted the DUP's analysis that the St Andrews Agreement does not commit the party to the timetable originally proposed by the British and Irish governments for the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Stormont Assembly.

At the same time Mr Woodward insisted it was "an article of faith" in the St Andrews Agreement that the completion of the devolution process should follow on from Sinn Féin's endorsement of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

Mr Woodward also noticeably failed to answer when asked by his Conservative shadow Owen Paterson for an assurance that, in the continued absence of agreement between the parties, he (Woodward) would not bring forward legislation "to impose it on one section of the community".