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Task force for unionist link-up with Tories still not selected

By Noel McAdam

Members of a joint Ulster Unionist and Conservative Party ‘task force’ have yet to be appointed — even though they have less than two months to complete a report.

On the eve of the UUP annual conference — to be attended by Conservative leader David Cameron — the make up of a new working team has still to be finalised.

Mr Cameron is to hold private talks with UU leader Sir Reg Empey on the fringes of the gathering in Belfast tomorrow which are likely to include the formation of the group.

It is more than a fortnight since the committee was agreed at a meeting of the UU executive where only two members abstained on a vote in favour of developing closer links between the parties — and none against.

The eight strong group — four from each party — has to “bring forward proposals on manifesto commitments and the branding of candidates, ensuring that the heritage and appeal of both parties are respected and that the popular appeal to the whole Northern Ireland electorate is maximised”.

Their recommendations will go back before the 80-strong UU executive but with the Christmas and New Year political recess, could have a maximum of five weeks to draw up its proposals.

Party officials have played down reports that a number of senior figures, including former Belfast councillor Chris McGimpsey and at least one MLA, could resign over the decision to forge a ‘new political force’ with the Tories.

The party’s only MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, who is in mourning following the death of her husband, Sir Jack Hermon, is expected to stay away from the gathering.

There has been speculation the North Down MP would begin to take the Conservative whip at Westminster if there is a strong majority in the party in favour of the closer working relationship.

But some say Lady Sylvia would be reluctant to accept the Tory whip and one source said that she might even resign from the party and fight the next General Election as an independent.

Mr Cameron and Sir Reg are expected to talk up the prospects of closer ties in their addresses to the conference which will also be attended by other members of the Conservative Party including Shadow Secretary of State, Owen Patterson.

Mr Cameron said Mr Patterson had “worked tirelessly” with members of both parties.

But it has also emerged that Mr Cameron may spend as little as 90 minutes at the gathering and may not be able to stay to hear Sir Reg’s reply to his remarks.

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