Belfast Telegraph

UUP-Conservative alliance is just a marriage of convenience

The Ulster Unionists say their Tory tie-up will give the party influence over Government policy. Will it really, asks Alan Murray

It was pointed out to Owen Patterson during the week that the Conservatives haven't enjoyed as much as a mention in our local media in a decade or more.

The engineered call from George W Bush to David Cameron last weekend thrust the Tories' Northern Ireland policy - and their formal link with the Ulster Unionists - on to the news agenda in Britain for the first time.

It put Patterson, the Shadow Northern Ireland spokesman, and Cameron on the spot for 48 hours as they were assailed and lambasted for not directing the UUP to do 'the right thing'.

But had Cameron and Patterson been able to wield the Texas cattle-prods Dubya would have placed at their disposal and corral Reg Empey and his MLAs through the 'yes' lobby, the UUP would have been doubly-damaged.

Damaged for doing the type of political somersault they accuse the DUP of and damaged for appearing to be David Cameron's poodle.

Some have suggested that the UUP's polite rejection of the advice offered by Cameron and Patterson will surely damage the relationship between the two parties.

But according to senior Ulster Unionist figures who dined with Patterson and other Tory visitors here on Wednesday, nothing could be further from the truth.

"You know, what the public hasn't been clearly told is that this high drama crisis situation at Stormont is going to arise again in two years' time," said one of those present.

"This is not a solution to the policing and justice issue - it is merely an interim arrangement to prevent the Assembly collapsing and the Tories, if they become the Government in a few weeks' time, know that they will be saddled with it when they take up the reins."

Within the Ulster Unionist Party there remains scepticism about the wisdom of linking up formally with the Conservative Party.

One councillor echoed that scepticism - and derided the inclination towards 'celebrity' candidates for the next Westminster election.

Prospective Catholic Tory candidates for those nominations were understandably discomfited at the revelation that the UUP attended one secret meeting sponsored by the Orange Order to probe the possibility of an alternative DUP/UUP pact for the forthcoming Westminster election.

Last Tuesday's acrimonious debate in the Assembly on the devolution of policing and justice powers dispelled the possibility of such a pact. It also illustrated the acrimony on both sides of the political divide as, in the absence of rational debate, personal insult begat personal insult and the OFMDFM combo of Robinson and McGuinness emphasised the absolutist power of their coalition.

Moving away from and beyond what ensued in the Assembly chamber on Tuesday is something that supporters of the UUP/Conservative alliance say they can offer.

They assert that the one major development they have secured already is that David Cameron is pledged to be a supporter of the Union between Britain and Northern Ireland - not a neutral bystander, but a committed supporter of the constitutional arrangement.

They also say the alliance will secure modifications to UK policy in favour of our local circumstances if the Tories come to power, something Labour will not countenance.

Sir Reg's defiance of David Cameron's urgings to support the devolution of policing and justice powers has given the Labour Party ammunition to fire at the Conservative leader, but given that the rest of the UK is hardly interested in our politics, it's unlikely to have any impact on the outcome of the election in Britain.

And it's doubtful if Cameron's support for the Labour Government's position on policing and justice would induce Lady Hermon to consider modifying her resistance to the Conservative cause and becoming a true-blue believer in May.

Opponents will flag up the rejection of Cameron's urgings by the Ulster Unionist's executive and MLAs, but that will be countered by the argument that the pact offers input for the first time into the formulation of UK Government policy.

Observers will rightly point out that, as far as the Thatcher and Major governments acted, unionist input didn't impede the Anglo-Irish Agreement and later the Downing Street Declaration and the Joint Frameworks Document - two of the building blocks of the Good Friday Agreement.

Undermining the assertion that a binding pact exists between the UUP and the Conservatives and that Cameron will deliver for unionists of every creed and colour is a task the DUP has already set about.

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