UUP exiles in contact with Tories as the momentum of change shifts down a gear
We're not rushing into anything, says Basil McCrea
Two MLAs who dramatically quit the UUP last week in a row over unionist unity have opened contacts with the Conservative Party.
While John McCallister and Basil McCrea have stressed they may not make any decision about their future for months, the Tory Party is now emerging strongly as a possible home for the duo.
It had been widely expected that the two men, along with independent unionist David McClarty, would set up their own unionist opposition grouping at Stormont.
But with the practical difficulties of starting a new party with a distinct identity becoming apparent, no decision is imminent.
"The Tories are in the frame," Mr McCallister told this paper yesterday.
After a weekend of hectic activity both MLAs, together with Mr McClarty, are stepping back to take stock. There is a noticeable slowing of the pace of events.
Only yesterday Mr McCrea had intended to give a press briefing at Stormont setting out their plans for a new grouping but this plan was ditched after the Lagan Valley MLA said he had forgotten about a prior engagement at the Northern Ireland Science Park.
Asked about his future intentions he said: "This is not something we will be rushing, we need to discuss things and see how they feel before we make a move. There is nothing imminent.
"A firm announcement is unlikely before Easter," he added. Mr McCallister also regards Easter as the earliest point by which a decision is likely.
"We are looking at how the three of us could do some co-operation within the Assembly. This will not necessarily lead to a new party though it may do," he said.
Mr McClarty was even more cautious. "Things are still very tentative and there is nothing definitive to go on at the present. I am nowhere near considering joining another party," he said.
In the background there have been contacts with the Northern Ireland Conservatives.
Both they and the Alliance party have stated that they would welcome Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister as members.
"Our door is open to anyone who wants to explore whether or not their politics, like ours, is a politics for everyone," an Alliance spokesman said.
Mr McCallister said: "It is fair to say that the Tories are still in the frame but nothing is yet decided."
The alternative of throwing in their lot with Alliance now looks the less likely of the two options.
Alliance currently has two ministers in the Executive and has no thoughts of pulling out of it.
Irwin Armstrong, the chairman of the Northern Ireland Tories, refused to comment on any contacts.
He stated: "We are always open to new members, particularly those who have experience in politics."
He argued that joining the Tories would give the MLAs a distinctive brand.
"Another party with unionist in the name will make very little impact.
"It can't across the communities or break the mould.
"We in the Conservatives are firmly pro-union and that is different, and polls show many people are pro-union who won't vote unionist."
Story so far
Basil McCrea and John McCallister resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party last week. They said the decision to field Nigel Lutton as a pan-unionist candidate in Mid Ulster was the last straw. They had long opposed unionist unity and cooperation with the DUP. David McClarty, an independent unionist MLA who was formerly in the UUP, said he backed them.
Meanwhile, unity candidate aims to lick the opposition
By Noel McAdam
With voting in the Mid Ulster by-election battle just over two weeks away, unionist unity candidate Nigel Lutton was in relaxed mood as he strolled, ice-cream in hand, with UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and the DUP's Peter Robinson.
As he lodged his nomination papers yesterday, it emerged Mr Lutton, whose father was a murdered RUC reservist, has not made clear whether or not he supports power-sharing at Stormont. Asked whether he is in favour of the current devolution arrangements, Mr Lutton said they had been endorsed by democracy.
He also refused to say which of the two parties endorsing his candidacy he normally supported.
"I vote on conscience," he said.
Other candidates standing in the election sparked by Martin McGuinness's resignation as an MP include Sinn Fein's Francie Molloy, the SDLP's Patsy McGlone, who also lodged his papers yesterday, and Alliance's Eric Bullick.