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UUP Conference: Leader says his party can become a ‘franchise’ for Tories

By David Gordon

UUP leader Tom Elliott wants his party's controversial Conservative Party link to continue in a new form — with the Ulster Unionists becoming the “franchise” for the Tories in Northern Ireland.

The relationship could involve a sharing of policies, with the UUP operating under a level of official blessing from Tory HQ.

Mr Elliott told his party conference at the weekend that the Ulster Unionists would in future be a “free-standing party”, fielding “our own candidates under our own colours and policies”.

That rules out a continuation of the formal “UCUNF” electoral pact with the Conservatives that failed to land a single MP at this year's General Election.

But Mr Elliott is still hoping for an official “franchise” tie-up and has warned against Tory candidates standing against his party in next year's Assembly poll.

There are calls from within Conservative ranks here to contest the Stormont poll in their own right.

Mr Elliott said electoral rivalry next year between the UUP and Tories would “cause some problems both for them and us”.

He also told BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics show that his party had moved the Conservatives to a “pro-union” stance on Northern Ireland's position in the UK.

“But what I want to see is a working relationship, as opposed to just an electoral relationship, where we share policies, we share ideas and we're basically the franchise of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland,” he added.

Discussions between Mr Elliott and the Conservative Party on future relations are due to continue this week.

In his maiden conference speech as party leader on Saturday, Mr Elliott asserted the point that he was not “some sort of political dinosaur”.

He repeatedly attacked the record of the DUP and Sinn Fein in office at Stormont, using words like “carve up” and “failure”.

“What we have today is bad government,” he said.

The conference, at Belfast's Ramada Hotel, was clouded by the resignations in recent months of three party General Election candidates.

East Belfast Westminster candidate Trevor Ringland quit the UUP after Mr Elliott stuck to his position of not attending GAA matches or Gay Pride events.

Paula Bradshaw (South Belfast) and most recently Harry Hamilton (Upper Bann) walked after not being selected on the party slate for next year's Assembly election. Ms Bradshaw has since joined the Alliance Party.

Mr Elliott began his conference speech paying tribute to lifelong members who “haven't given up”. To applause, he said: “And just because they don't get what they want in one day, they don't run off.”

More pointed comments came in a conference address by party chairman David Campbell, who aimed strong criticism at Ms Bradshaw, Mr Hamilton and to a lesser extent Mr Ringland.

Mr Campbell said that after “one disappointment”, people had left in an “ill-tempered sulk carrying their single transferable principles with them”.

He also said the party had been “bitterly” let down.

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