Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But soon, Sir Reg

It may not have an MP, but with a seat at the Cabinet table the UUP will still be hard-wired into the most pro-unionist Government since Margaret Thatcher, writes Henry McDonald

The Usual Suspects - Lady Hermon (below centre) won't take the UCUNF whip, but Sir Reg Empey can count on senior Tories such as Michael Gove and Dean Godson

On the last day of the Tory Party conference Sir Reg Empey quoted from the movie classic Casablanca. In his address to the Conservative faithful gathered in Manchester, the Ulster Unionist leader ended his speech with the words, "David, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship."

Apart from the toe-curling nature of his Bogartesque reference, perhaps Sir Reg was quoting from the wrong film when it came to describing the new love-in between the Tories and the UUP under the unfortunate acronym UCUNF.

A more accurate analysis of what lies in store electorally for the Tory-UUP alliance in Northern Ireland could be adequately summed up in another Bogart film, arguably his greatest, The Maltese Falcon.

After double-cross, murder and more double-cross, none of the characters in the film - including the wise-cracking, hard-boiled Sam Spade - attains their El Dorado.

The last image is of the Falcon itself, supposedly solid gold, worth a life-changing fortune.

The last words may be more germane when considering the true outcome at the polls for UCUNF, the Falcon is 'the stuff that dreams are made of'.

Already those dreams of a united unionist force, plugged into central British state power this May when David Cameron knocks on the door of 10 Downing Street, are coming apart at the seams.

The Ulster Unionist Association has put forward three candidates to challenge Alasdair McDonnell for the South Belfast seat. They include former UUP Lord Mayor Bobby Stoker, they do not include in their list the candidate the Tories have already chosen as their standard bearer in the constituency - former local BBC chief Peter McCann.

To compound problems for the UCUNF project, the south Belfast Ulster Unionists are also proposing a pan-unionist pact with the Democratic Unionist Party.

In a nod-and-wink, the association is saying you give us a free run in south Belfast and you can have a solo crack at taking back Fermanagh/South Tyrone for unionism.

This, of course, is completely counter to David Cameron's designs on putting up a pro-union Tory candidate in every constituency in Northern Ireland.

SDLP sources in the constituency can barely conceal their glee over the confusing messages emitting from the unionist camp.

Alasdair McDonnell must think his Christmas has come early, especially if the local UUP continue to bicker and threaten to derail the UCUNF strategy for the general election.

Then there is the question of what to do about Sylvia. Lady Sylvia Hermon that is, who has remained Sphinx-like about her future intentions.

Will she stand again and, if she does, presumably as an Independent Unionist? Or, instead, will she give her benediction to ex-Alliance-turned- Tory candidate Ian Parsley?

If she stands, Parlsey's former friends in Alliance may step down in North Down and urge their supporters to vote for Lady Hermon.

In that scenario, the UUP, and thus the Conservatives, could end up having no MPs coming back to Westminster under a Cameron government. Yet all is not doom and gloom for unionism in general - if and when the Conservatives take power. It is one of the biggest open secrets in British politics that Cameron will elevate former First Minister and Nobel Laureate David Trimble into the Conservative Cabinet, more than likely as the next attorney general given the latter's academic/legal background.

Unionism, therefore, will have a reliable ally sitting around the Cabinet table after next May.

Lord Trimble, however, will not be alone around that table inside Downing Street, because within the current Shadow Cabinet, and indeed among the influential think-tanks of the Tory Party, there are strong ideological unionist voices.

Take, for instance, Michael Gove. The very able and erudite Conservative education spokesman is a committed unionist and is someone close to Cameron's inner circle.

Gove is known to be as hostile to anti-unionist forces in Northern Ireland as he is to the nationalist/seccessionist threat to the union in his native Scotland.

Behind the scenes the increasingly influential Policy Exchange Tory think-tank is peopled with ideological unionists, most notably one of its founders, Dean Godson, David Trimble's official biographer.

In spite of being personally close to Trimble when he was First Minister, Godson remained opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and supported the No camp of the then bitterly divided UUP.

Denis Bradley has zeroed in on one particular issue where the Tories will take a radically different approach to Northern Ireland compared to Labour: dealing with the past.

Bradley told the Progressive Unionist Party's annual conference that the Tories intend to ditch the Legacy Commission and bury the idea of a Truth Commission. In its place, the Tories will build a memorial hospital and set up some kind of funding mechanism for victims.

What Bradley outlined is only the start - the Tories, driven by their ideological unionists, will be less inclined to dole out concessions to nationalism as New Labour has over this decade.

By the summer of 2010, therefore, Northern Ireland may find itself in a curious political paradox: while UCUNF may end up with no MPs at Westminster, it will still be linked to the most pro-unionist British government since Margaret Thatcher took power three decades earlier.

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