UUP buoyed by Cameron visit
Conservative leader David Cameron has arrived in Northern Ireland for talks with the UUP, having been delayed today by flight restrictions caused by the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland.
Mr Cameron's planned visit for talks with Tory and Ulster Unionist candidates was put in doubt after airspace over Ireland was closed this morning.
The two parties are fighting the election jointly in 17 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies under the banner of UCUNF (Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force).
An expectant crowd of supporters gathered at La Mon House hotel in Belfast and were relieved to hear that Mr Cameron’s pledge to campaign in Northern Ireland had not been grounded after flights in irish airspace were cancelled after the return of the ash cloud.
And while speculation mounted that Mr Cameron might seek to bypass the ban by travelling by helicopter, it emerged at lunchtime that he had been cleared to fly. He arrived in Belfast City airport this afternoon after it was allowed to reopen by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority.
The Conservative leader is under pressure to address fears that he will impose major public sector cuts in Northern Ireland. His party has also been criticised for dropping a pledge to stand in all Northern Ireland constituencies.
The Tories, Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists have instead united behind a joint unionist candidate in Fermanagh/South Tyrone in an attempt to take the seat from Sinn Féin.
Mr Cameron told UCUNF candidates he would show "compassion, reasonableness and concern for the most disadvantaged" in cutting Britain's record budget deficit. "That's the sort of person I am, the sort of prime minister I would be," he said. He also said that if he became prime minister he would bolster the union between London and Stormont.
“Our two parties have created a new dynamic force for Northern Ireland, he said. “We are not just saying that we are the party of the union, we are showing that we are the party of the union, the party of Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England - with candidates standing in every part of the United Kingdom.
“Nobody else can say that. Not Labour. Not the Liberal Democrats,” he said. “I will never be neutral on the union."
His pledges on the union, coupled with a promise not to single out Northern Ireland for undue cuts, won a rapturous reception from supporters.
Flanked by Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey and general election candidates, Mr Cameron also promised moves to create jobs in the region.
But challenged on whether he may not soon be seeking support from the Democratic Unionist party to form a government, he said: “We are fighting this election to win.”
Mr Cameron's flying visit to Belfast forms part of a 36-hour non-stop whirlwind tour taking in all corners of the UK, which will see him campaign through the night, meeting bakers, fishermen and others who work through the early hours.
With polls suggesting the Tories are edging ever closer to an outright majority in the House of Commons, the Northern Ireland parties may play a vital role in determining the nature of the British government after May 6th.
If his party gets within a dozen seats of a majority, Mr Cameron is expected to seek support from the likely 10 or 11 unionist MPs to prop up his administration without the need for a deal with the Liberal Democrats.
Such a result would potentially give the Democratic Unionist Party significant leverage in securing benefits for Northern Ireland.