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!

  • Perfectly reasonable dampner on the original Slugger story which certainly contained a degree of speculation. But both in principle want to see P&J devolved, so what are the differences on that? Both have questions on community confidence that neither would disagree with – the parades issue needs to be addressed and the institutions reformed/approached in such a way as to actually create accountable administration. So travelling all the way to England to discuss what you already broadly agree on does not make sense – you could touch base closer to home (and don’t argue privacy as this hasn’t exactly happened anyway). And in the absense of an agenda, it is not hard to believe that whatever the stated purpose of the meeting that the Conservatives would not take an opportunity of exploring the potential for broader working relationships should they be necessary in the future. They are the ones with the money, doing the polling, that enables them to work out the realistic chances of seats… and the prospect of a hung parliament remains real. No relationship with the UUP will get in the way of the Conservatives getting into Government, and if that means dealing with the DUP so be it.

  • Spooky indeed. Incidentally in the original copy this

    At national and local level it has been more positive about the prospects of devolution than the UUP

    did make more sense. A ‘Tories’ was substituted for ‘Conservative party’.

  • Dissenter – I don’t think the principle of P & J is the issue. The UUs have made it quite clear that they expect a price for the devolution of policing and justice, if they’re to be kept out of the loop. So there very clearly are differences there.

  • danielmoran

    What nobody seems to have queried is, how is it that the UUP, who should be about to take back their pre 2002 leadership of unionists, are yet prepared to let the duppers off the hook. Unless their private polling shows they weren’t going to get ‘their’ westminster seats back, this is an uncharacteristic bout of altruism on the UUP part. The DUP are there for the taking, so why are we now hearing they can offset these predicted losses both at Stormont and the commons.It’s strange, to put it mildly.

  • Framer

    ‘Dissenter’ has it about right. The meeting was a sign of the Robinson/DUP near-religious certainty of their correctness dying away. Iris has worked wonders.

    Without the fundamentalists (who went TUV) and with a DUP/SF coalition at Stormont what’s left of the DUP is not that far away from the UUP and the Conservatives know this.

    So it is time for re-alignment, with the UUP writing off Hermon in North Down as someone who once selected and elected thinks herself bigger than the little people in the party. Sadly she is also besotted with New Labour’s sinking ship just when the Tories are hoving into view to be the next government.

    There can now be unspoken arrangements over candidates, made either by the parties, or more likely Unionist electors when they know which way a constituency is turning.

  • mayday

    The recent private talks between the Conservatives, UU and DUP should not be underestimated in importance. Owen Patterson has been quite couragous in hosting this meeting. Commentators should think outside the Stormont bubble and the historic disutes between unionists. There are now very few policy differences between the UU and DUP and the devolution of P and J will bring to an end the chapter on the restoration of full devolution. Somewhere in the political ether there are strategists at work who have the vision to see that a realignment of pro unionist conservative politics is the foundation of the community confidence which has to exist for longterm stability in Northern Ireland. Owen Patterson should be congratulated for taking a first steps in building what could be a new concensus of non sectarian national politics in Northern Ireland.

  • I’d have thought the main purpose of such a gathering at this time would have been to draw up a strategy to maximise the number of Unionist MPs at Westminster.

  • mayday

    There are wider issues than maximising the number of MP’s. A three way unionist family split would inevitably lead to a situation where SF would be in pole position to gain the position of first minister by default should there be an Assembly election in the short/medium term. This would lead to logjam in the institutions because the leader of the largest unionist group would not have the wider community support to nominate a deputy first minister. The system would collapse. Realignment before an election would ensure the SF strategy within this ‘phase’of their ideological struggle to weaken the union would fail.

  • Neil

    Is it the case that if Marty were to resign as DFM an assembly election would be called? If so that would give SF an option, as the theoretical Unionist grouping would have to be declared prior to the assembly election. The Tories have again stated that they will field 18 candidates in the Westminster elections, and given the logistical diffculties in joining the two parties together one would imagine that if Marty were to force an election at the same time as the Westminster election (for good sensible reasons, such as saving cash by not having two elections say) it would be unlikely IMO for the merger to take place in time.

    All so much hot air if Marty can’t force an election, but a serious option if he can.

  • mayday

    The process for realignment is relatively simple. Agree a new name with the Electoral Commission and then register. All candidates fighting under the new registered name would come under a single party label in Stormont when D’Hont is triggered. There could be one, two, three or more parties aligned under a new registered party name. The move towards normal political activity with proper policies on local and national issues is a natural progression as Northern Ireland moves further into a post conflict environment. This move should be cultivated and encouraged.

  • danielmoran

    Neil…Msg 9. The BBC NI news on text this morning suggested that the govt[s] could intervene to suspend as mandelson did that time to help trimble. But at SAA, Marty insisted that suspension by outside poarties could not happen now. I don’t see how the govt can do this in spite of SAA.

  • someone

    Mr Patterson has been made to look a complete tit by this debacle – the only question to ask is why he ever thought the DUP (and perhaps malign elements at the top of the UUP) wouldn’t leak this meeting and spin it as a “unionist unity meeting” to (a) damage C&U project and (b) spook SF.

    Would love to have been a fly on the wall when he had to explain himself to Cameron…

    Lesson learned Mr Patterson?

  • granni trixie

    Wonder why Lady H is “besotted” by New Labour. Who knows if the rumours are true?