Tories will press ahead, with or without the UUP
The UUP has missed an opportunity to create a strong pro-Union party, but it's their loss says The Lord Feldman of Elstree, co-chairman of the Conservative Party
In recent weeks, there has been some discussion in the pages of this newspaper and elsewhere of my recent offer on behalf of the Conservative Party to the Ulster Unionists.
Now that Tom Elliott and his party have declined to proceed with our proposals, I want to make clear the full nature of the offer from the Conservative Party to the UUP.
More importantly, as we begin a new year in which we face serious economic challenges, I want to set out the vision we have for the future of Conservative and pro-Union politics in Northern Ireland.
So let me be clear about the offer to the UUP.
The aim was straightforward - to provide the people of Northern Ireland with the opportunity to vote for a modern, centre-right, pro-Union party which will make their votes meaningful within the context of national UK politics.
We wanted to reach out to everybody in Northern Ireland, regardless of their background. The vehicle we proposed was an entirely new political party, unencumbered by the conflict and divisions of Northern Ireland's past.
This was a bold offer - but it was also warm, generous, and sincerely made.
This was no takeover bid, but potentially a full merger of two political parties, each with their own history and traditions while sharing a common culture of centre-right ideas and beliefs.
Under our proposed terms, Ulster Unionists, as part of the new party, would have had a voice at the centre of the Conservative Party, a seat on the Party Board, the chance to vote for the leader of the Conservative Party, and full access to the campaigning resources of the party.
Despite interest from a number of politicians and voters, the UUP has rejected this opportunity. We think that this is a mistake.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister has asked me to continue to move forward in our mission to deliver mainstream, national politics to the people of Northern Ireland, beginning in the New Year.
Our ambition in all of this remains the same. We are stalwart and proud supporters of the Union. As Conservatives, it's in our DNA.
But there is an urgent need to take pro-Union politics to the next stage. For centuries, Northern Irish people have helped make the United Kingdom a success on the world stage. But today, as we face enormous global challenges in our economy and new powers emerging in international politics, too often, Northern Ireland largely exists outside the mainstream of UK politics.
Why is it we have great men and women from Northern Ireland at the top in the media, sport, the arts and the military yet nobody from Northern Ireland sits in the UK Government?
Our new approach will, we hope, put Northern Ireland back at the centre of national politics. It will mean a straight line flows from the local council chamber through to the Cabinet Table.
We believe that many people in Northern Ireland are hungry for this change. It is long overdue. We believe that the Conservative Party led by David Cameron is the only party able to deliver that change.
Of course, there is much hard work to do on the ground before we reach this destination. We have to convince the electorate of Northern Ireland that we are the party capable of understanding its concerns and making a difference.
The Conservative Party will work tirelessly within the community, between now and the next elections, leading campaigns on local issues, showing how this fits in to national politics, highlighting where the Executive is failing to deliver and putting across positive Conservative alternatives.
In practical terms what will this mean?
First, we will continue with our plans to create a new political party in Northern Ireland. Specifically, we will reconstitute the current Northern Ireland Conservatives as a new local party.
We will ensure that this local party will have the same kind of relationship to the national Conservative Party as the Welsh and Scottish Conservative Parties. It will enjoy the advantages of autonomous decision-making while being in a position to shape the direction of the national Conservative Party.
Second, as Party co-chairman, I will personally ensure that the local party gets the full resources it needs to be an effective and serious campaigning force.
In the last 12 months we have retained a full-time professional in Bangor and we will look to expand this team in the future.
We will also ensure that the new party will have access to all services provided by Conservative Campaign Headquarters in London.
That will include guidance on campaigning and membership recruitment, design and print services and full support from our national press and research teams.
So we are clear in our goal and will be determined in our pursuit of it. Our message to everyone in Northern Ireland is: join us and help make it a reality.
As the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have said, it's time to move beyond the politics of the peace process to a more normal state of affairs in which everyone can play a part in national politics.