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Tories accused of Northern Ireland election pledge U-turn

The Conservatives were accused of backtracking on a pledge to stand in Stormont elections by the party's former Northern Ireland chairman as he resigned over the issue.

Irwin Armstrong said his position was no longer tenable after the Tories decided to opt out of next May's Assembly poll to allow their erstwhile electoral partners the Ulster Unionists a free run.

The agreement with the UUP will enable the Tories to stand in next year's council elections, but Mr Armstrong said that was not enough.

He claimed Secretary of State Owen Paterson and another senior party figure in Northern Ireland told him last month that Prime Minister David Cameron had decided to contest the Assembly election.

"I took them at face value and organised members to do things in Northern Ireland on the basis that we would be running in the election," he said.

He said the subsequent agreement between the Tories and UUP had been struck without consulting him.

"The decision will effectively disband the Conservatives in Northern Ireland as the sole reason for a political party is to contest elections and the recruitment of activists will be impossible if all they are offered is council elections and pacts with another party," he added.

Mr Armstrong, who was appointed chairman in June, said he would think long and hard about whether he would be renewing his membership of the Conservative party.

The 59-year-old Ballymena businessman had wanted to see a clean break with the UUP after the disastrous pact to run joint candidates at the general election failed to deliver one seat in Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies.

Since then there had been mounting speculation they would effectively go their own ways.

But both parties have now pledged to hold discussions about an "ongoing political and electoral relationship" ahead of the next European and general elections.

A proposed agreement between them includes the understanding that any future UUP MP or Euro MP would take the Tory whip.

Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott said he was unaware of any pledges made by Mr Paterson to his Conservative colleagues in Northern Ireland, and he denied that the relationship with the Tories had been badly handled.

"Not as far as I am concerned," he said. "This is work in progress for us."

Mr Elliott took over from Sir Reg Empey who resigned in the wake of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force electoral failure.

The new leader has since conceded that the experiment was a non starter.

"I have been quite clear about my position during the leadership campaign, over the last five months, that I didn't believe that the UCUNF project worked," he said.

"I was someone who supported a relationship with the Conservatives, but not the relationship that we had.

"I just felt it was too mixed and too difficult for people to understand.

"So what we want to do is simplify it."

Mr Armstrong has accused the Ulster Unionists of reverting to old tribal positions and said the Tories could not promote a new non-aligned brand of politics if they continue to associate with the UUP.

"I had hoped we could build our party as a non sectarian party in Northern Ireland that could honestly represent all," he said.

"In my opinion the Conservative party has now abandoned any serious attempt to change politics in Northern Ireland and has accepted the narrow one-community politics of the UUP to attempt to gain one or two MPs at the next Westminster election."

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