UCUNF-DUP: Nothing to see here, says Polley…

IF Chief Wiggum was standing guard outside Owen Paterson’s office, he’d be played by Owen Polley. There’s only one line to learn: move along folks, nothing to see here. Or maybe we’re all looking for something that isn’t there, and the simplest theory really does explain the UCUNF-DUP meeting at the weekend. Whether Polley’s explanation is more plausible is open to question, and I doubt he’s seen the agenda. Anyway, he argues:

Negotiations over the devolution of policing and justice have reached a critical phase. Although the Conservative Party has insisted that its Ulster Unionist partner has the right to develop an independent strategy on policing and justice, both David Cameron and Owen Paterson have expressed their preference for early devolution. Sir Reg Empey, too, has consistently maintained that the UUP is not opposed to a Justice Minister at Stormont. At a crucial juncture in the policing and justice saga the Tories have simply brought the unionist factions together in an attempt to iron out their differences over this issue.

UPDATE: Henry McDonald suspects the meeting may be something to do with a plan to form a unionist Assembly bloc in order to thwart an SF politician becoming First Minister.

However, this would, according to a previous Speaker’s interpretation of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (while ruling on the ill-fated PUP/UUP alliance), require

a short, suitable name; a headquarters, or at least an address for the purpose of communication; officers of the party, including at least a leader, a treasurer and a contact person, called a “nominating officer”, for the purpose of liaising with the Electoral Commission and others; a constitution; a scheme for financial support of the party; and an intention to contest elections.

Seems unlikely, no? McDonald writes:

Last week the Guardian revealed the existence of a plan within the UUP to cope with the possibility of fresh assembly elections and the prospect of Sinn Féin emerging as the largest single party.

If Sinn Féin came out as No 1 it would give them the right to nominate Martin McGuinness as first minister; no unionist would serve under him for fear of electoral annihilation in the near future.

To get around this scenario, a senior UUP strategist told the Guardian that they would create a united unionist bloc. This unionist unity force would have to be constituted before any assembly election as a coherent, singular entity, which the strategist hoped would gain enough votes to ensure unionism retained the position of first minister.

If this is indeed the UUP-DUP strategy, and if the Tories are in any way giving assent or even turning a blind eye to this chicanery, it will only increase fears among all nationalists that once again the “orange card”, played since the days of Bonar Law and Edward Carson, has come into play once more.

Polley goes on:

Certainly there is an agenda to the meeting. The Tories would like to overcome the justice logjam. At national and local level it has been more positive about the prospects of devolution than the UUP. No doubt Owen Paterson is eager to give the DUP an opportunity to address Ulster Unionist concerns.

Power-sharing institutions are once again teetering on the brink of collapse and Paterson is due to inherit any mess that might result. It would be surprising if a prospective Secretary of State were not engaged in attempts to keep the Assembly afloat. After all, some pollsters predict the Tories will be in government in less than six months’ time.

Privately, local Tories are puzzled that a routine meeting has generated such an unusual degree of interest and they are suspicious that the ‘unionist unity’ theme has emerged.

It’s hardly routine if the DUP leadership are there, surely? And isn’t it weird how Chief Wiggum popped into my head and Owen’s at almost exactly the same time? Maybe there’s something going on there we don’t know about!