Yesterday probably marked the lowest point for the Conservative / UUP pact since its inception 14 months ago but it could yet go lower to the point where the pact collapses.
The Flare-up began on Thursday evening when it was revealed on Hearts and Minds that during December at Schomburg House, there had been a “confidential” meeting between the DUP and the UUP to discuss unionist unity, organised by the Orange Order. The meeting was attended by Sir Reg Empey and David McNarry of the DUP and by Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds of the DUP.
In the course of the programme, it was revealed that the discussions included candidacy at the Westminster Elections and the likelihood that Sinn Fein would hold the office of First Minister after the next Assembly elections.
On Thursday night, Nigel Davenport continued to stir the pot on behalf of the BBC. After taking soundings from Conservatives on their reaction to the Broadcast, he used rugby union analogy to describe how they had been let down by the UUP
“More spooked I would say are the Conservatives who were blind sided by their partners the Ulster Unionists. Owen Paterson need not have gone to all that trouble booking Hatfield House if he had been aware that Bobby Saulters was already doing the job of bringing unionists together. The Conservative sources I spoke to tonight expressed some concern and dismay and said they would be looking for an explanation from Sir Reg Empey who attended the talks alongside Peter Robinson.”
By Friday morning, all eyes were on Owen Paterson. Writing for the BBC again, Michael Crick reported that Owen Paterson was seeking urgent clarification from Sir Reg Empey. He said
“The Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman Owen Paterson is seeking an urgent meeting with the Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey today over the future of the Conservatives’ pact with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).”
Owen Paterson’s objective in having that meeting was clearly damage limitation. By 3.45 pm on Friday, Owen Paterson released the following statement:
“In his capacity as Ulster Unionist leader, Sir Reg Empey regularly meets all strands of opinion throughout Northern Ireland. He referred ‘in passing’ to a meeting, requested in October and held in December, but I was not aware of the content or the participants.
“As there was nothing of consequence arising from the meeting he did not mention it to me again. Sir Reg Empey has made clear to me that it has no bearing on our joint determination to stand together as ‘Conservatives and Unionists at the forthcoming Westminster elections to bring national, mainstream and non-sectarian politics to Northern Ireland.”
By 5.00 pm, Sir Reg issued his response to the crisis (source Conservative Home)
“The Ulster Unionist Party was invited in October 2009 by the Orange Order to a meeting with their Grand Master. On behalf of the UUP I accepted the invitation. Mr Saulters wanted a private and confidential meeting to discuss ‘ways and means of finding co-operation on the way forward.’ I have respected his request for confidentiality. Sadly this was not respected by others. Despite a conversation and discussion on the issues that Mr Saulters wished to raise, no agreements were reached.
”We are often asked to talk about Unionist cooperation where possible and about how best to provide stability for the future of Northern Ireland. However the UUP is very much aware, given past history, that cooperation is not always achievable. Indeed it makes it much more difficult when a significant aim of one of the organisations you are dealing with is to destroy you. The Ulster Unionist Party will continue to have discussions with organisations on issues that are of benefit to the Union, but we will not be used as an escape route for others who have significant political difficulties.
“Let me also reaffirm my commitment to developing our relationship with the Conservative Party. Along with our Conservative colleagues we will do all we can to promote, protect and preserve the Union and bring national politics unto the Northern Ireland agenda. The spectacle of recent days in our political journey at Hillsborough illustrates the need to get back as soon as possible to dealing with the issues that matter to people such as jobs, health and education.”
The question now is whether these press releases represent an an attempt to repair a hole in a sinking ship. Before Crick’s update was posted, Jeffrey Peel and most of the commenters who contributed to his blog yesterday were of the view that the pact could not survive. Meanwhile, on the Ulster Unionist side, Chekov published a scathing criticism of the conduct of the UUP leadership while Boballs insists that the UUP must clear up the mess. In his last post, he has expressed his belief the pact can not survive.
This morning, the Belfast Telegraph reports that Sir Reg Empey is blaming the DUP for trying to destroy his party. Is that news? After all, why else would the DUP have negotiated at St. Andrews for the largest party to hold the first minister’s position? Few are likely to be impressed with Sir Reg’s response to this crisis. It is unlikely to suppress rising anger within his party or more press speculation that the pact will unravel.
This morning, David Gordon began the tomato throwing on behalf of the Belfast Telegraph. Expect a pounding from other sections of the media over the next few days.
Filed under: Assembly, Conservative Party, David McNarry, DUP, General Election, Martin McGuiness, Nigel Dodds, Normal Politics, Northern Ireland politics, Owen Paterson, Peter Robinson, sectarianism, Sinn Fein, Sir Reg. Empey, St. Andrews agreement, Stormont, UK Parliament, ulster unionist party, Unionism, UUP, Westminster | Tagged: Assembly, Conservative Party, David Cameron, David McNarry, DUP, General Election, Martin McGuiness, Nigel Dodds, Normal Politics, Northern Ireland politics, Orance Order, Orange Order, Owen Paterson, Peter Robinson, Power Sharing, sectarianism, Sinn Fein, Sir Reg. Empey, St. Andrews agreement, Stormont, Tory-UUP linkup, UK Parliament, ulster unionist party, Unionism, UUP, Westminster | 15 Comments »