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Editor's Viewpoint: Tories playing a dangerous game

Reports that a possible pan-unionist electoral pact was on the agenda at the talks hosted by Shadow Secretary of State Owen Patterson in England has caused further shockwaves at a very sensitive time in Northern Ireland politics.

With the British and Irish Prime Ministers desperately trying to find a compromise deal to stop the power-sharing administration crumbling, the last thing they needed was an issue causing fresh divisions here.

This newspaper supported the pact between the Ulster Unionists and Conservative parties to field agreed candidates in elections as a bold initiative to break the tribal, partisan politics of Northern Ireland. If any of the candidates were successful - and if the Tories win this year's General Election - it would mean that local politicians would have direct access to the heart of the UK's Government.

Many Ulster Unionists, who have seen their once dominant party reduced to a bit player at Stormont, were enthused by the prospect. But following the talks at Hatfield House, which were attended by both DUP and Ulster Unionist members, even Northern Ireland-based Tories are sceptical about what was discussed. Already three prospective Tory candidates in the province have withdrawn from the selection process in protest. They fear that the Ulster Unionists and DUP may draw up an electoral pact to ensure a maximum return of seats for unionists and avoiding a split vote.

Even the Government has expressed concern, claiming that Mr Paterson's involvement in hosting the talks puts the long-standing bi-partisan approach at Westminster in doubt. In essence, the Tories are accused of not simply siding with one party in Northern Ireland - a party which was formerly officially linked to the Conservatives - but of taking sides with the unionist community. That notion must quickly be dispelled otherwise the likely next Government of the UK will be seen as partial - a recipe for disaster in this province.

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