The British Conservative Party is to open a full-time headquarters in Northern Ireland.
The party has also confirmed that it will contest the local government elections in May, although they have held back from standing for Stormont seats at this stage.
The move, following a meeting of the Conservative Party’s ruling Board, has been personally welcomed by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, joint chair of the Tories.
“The Conservative Party in Northern Ireland has the |unequivocal support of the party nationally.
“Our approach will be one of active engagement — starting with the fielding of candidates in the local council elections in May,” Baroness Warsi said last night.
The decision to extend the party’s organisation in the province has obvious implications after the Tories’ troubled pact with the Ulster Unionists, known as UCUNF.
In December Irwin Armstrong, a Ballymena businessman, |resigned as chairman of the Tories in protest at the continued link with the UUP.
However, last night Armstrong welcomed the new development and said: “I see this as a significant step forward and will be returning as chairman again.”
A senior Conservative source stressed that the party would not be contesting the Assembly |elections.
This is in fulfilment of a pledge made by Andrew Feldman, who chairs the party alongside Warsi, to Tom Elliott, the Ulster Unionist leader, on December 8 last.
At the time Mr Elliott was delighted with Feldman’s assurance and spoke of an agreement with the Tories which would extend to the European and Westminster elections in four years’ time.
The deal was to have been ratified by the Ulster Unionist Executive and the Conservative Party Board.
However the agreement with the UUP has not now been |extended as Elliott envisaged.
The relationship between the two parties will be reviewed in light of the May election results. It may not automatically continue after that.
In the meantime the Tories intend opening an office in Bangor.