Belfast Telegraph

How talks on unity ended in rancour and internal rows

UUP MLA David McNarry gives his account of his fall-out with the party from which he is serving a nine-month suspension with little hope of a return

On June 23, 2011, I tendered in writing my resignation to Tom Elliott and David Campbell jointly. A few days later I received a telephone call from the party chairman (Campbell) requesting that I would meet with himself and the party leader (Elliott) at UUP Headquarters, Albertbridge Road, Belfast. I duly attended.

At the meeting Tom Elliott informed me something I believe he had never openly admitted to before. He told me that he was wrong in not doing a deal with Peter Robinson on the May 2011 Assembly and local government elections.

Elliott then moved to ask me if I would handle new talks with the DUP, take the lead with his authority and not resign. His exact words to me were, 'I can think of no better person to do this'.

Elliott accepted the terms under which I indicated I would first initiate talks and, if successful, would proceed to develop the joint party engagement.

Within days I met directly with Peter Robinson and advised him of the job Tom Elliott had entrusted to me.

Meetings were arranged by Robinson with Sammy Wilson, representing Robinson, and myself representing Elliott. Wilson's presence was recognition of the degree of seriousness with which the DUP was taking the prospect of future imminent in-depth talks.

All were clear that the outcome being sought by the Ulster Unionist initiative was to establish a closer working relationship, election pacts, joint candidates for European election and shared co-operation in the Assembly Executive.

Following the conclusion of the meetings with Wilson, each party leader appointed a team for talks. The team talks included both Elliott and Robinson and took place on a regular basis until early January 2012. I attended all the talks meetings which Elliott and Robinson attended. At intervals other senior members of both parties joined in the meetings.

At all times Robinson was accompanied by at least one of his close advisors.

The interview I gave to Liam Clarke for the Belfast Telegraph, published on January 23, 2012, only took place after consultation with Elliott and his approval to proceed. There were no secrets revealed or matters mentioned which senior UUP members were not aware of.

The idea of a junior UUP minister serving the party in the First Minister's Office was not new. It had been discussed between Elliott and me. The idea was not dismissed or rejected. The suggestion was made in the context of how the DUP could be tested to offer a gesture of good faith in the current Assembly term 2011-15 should agreement between the two parties be reached in the talks.

On certain issues within the talks' process, mainly involving the DUPs sincerity and commitment, an aspect I felt personally was equally challenging for the UUP, I could see Elliott's need for reassurance. On three separate occasions I advised Elliott to secure the required reassurances directly from Robinson. As the talks continued without interruption I took it that both Elliott and Robinson were both assured by each other's commitment to reach an agreed outcome.

The last conversation I had with Elliott about the direction of the on-going talks' process was to seek his agreement on changing the structure. Elliott agreed that both he and Robinson would step away from the talks as they entered into negotiation, both leaders allowing teams from their respective parties to get into the nitty gritty detailed minutia of close involvement.

Elliott agreed to myself and one other from the UUP authorised to meet with two DUP persons appointed by Robinson. Each party leader would receive a joint report at the conclusion of a talks' session. Elliott's view was to have a talks agreement done and dusted by May 2012.

Elliott asked me who I had in mind to accompany me at the next stage. When told, he retorted with a harsh 'No' The person mentioned by me was a senior serving MLA who knew about the talks and had previously approached me expressing a desire to help me in any way as he supported fully the idea of closer links with the DUP.

At the meeting in party HQ with both Elliott and Campbell, Elliott asked me to also handle what he termed parallel talks with the Conservatives which he would arrange with Owen Paterson and which he would attend with me.

A date was given to me at the meeting. However, the arrangement which had been made did not materialise. I advised Elliott that any parallel talks with the Conservatives should not be hidden from the DUP.

On September 3, 2011, Tom Elliott called together a small number of people, including myself, for a weekend at a hotel in Lough Erne. The group continued to meet under the adopted name of the Lough Erne Group at a Belfast venue. The talks with the DUP were disclosed and the potential of an election pact discussed.

The group included Mike Nesbitt and Danny Kinahan. It was viewed by Tom Elliott as his inner cabinet.

It did not include John McCallister or Basil McCrea. Not one member of the Lough Erne Group objected to, raised concerns, or challenged the reasons for engaging in high powered talks with the DUP.

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