Will DUP quit F-ST and South Belfast for UUP backing P&J deal..?

COULD the price of UUP support for a deal on devolved policing and justice powers – providing the DUP with both political cover and ‘community confidence’ – be a free run in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and South Belfast? Such a deal might well be in both parties’ interests – the UCUNFs get to stand in every NI constituency, as promised, while DUP withdrawal from the two key areas would help disguise a mauling at the polls. There’s also the possibility of a further deal on forming a unionist bloc in the Assembly to keep Sinn Fein off the First Minister’s seat. No wonder such a senior DUP delegation was at Lord Salisbury’s stately Hatfield House in Hertfordshire last weekend. DUP private polling must be worrying if they’re prepared to allow UCUNFers into the driving seat.

There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ in all this speculation, but Sir Reg must be rubbing his hands together after spending years in the doldrums. However, with such unionist unity shenanigans going on, one wonders if the UCUNFers will be able to credibly convince the public that they represent a new form of non-sectarian Conservative politics in Northern Ireland.

In the midst of everything, Owen Paterson met Acting First Minister Arlene yesterday. And the Irish Times reported that earlier a Tory spokesman said the purpose of the Hatfield House talks was to explore how “some of the political instabilities at Stormont” could be overcome. It was also, he added, “to avoid a situation in which we might potentially, should we win the election, inherit a collapsed Assembly and direct rule”.

“That is an entirely responsible role for a potential secretary of state, away from the glare of the media,” he added.