A senior Conservative has said his party will not be part of “any sectarian pact” in Northern Ireland. Talk of Unionist unity involving the DUP and Ulster Unionists has gathered momentum in the wake of the revelation that Northern Ireland Tory spokesman Owen Paterson held secret talks with the leadership of the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party at Hatfield House, the home of Lord Salisbury aka Robert Cranborne.The hierarchy of the Northern Ireland Conservative party was kept in the dark as were most of the Assembly members of both the DUP and Ulster Unionist parties. Conservatives point out Mr Paterson was acting in his capacity as shadow Secretary of State and not as a senior Conservative.
Local Conservatives are not just fulminating against Mr Paterson but they can scarcely contain their anger at the Ulster Unionist Party’s leadership, deemed by them to have betrayed them, in signalling a willingness to go into a coalition with the DUP. Peter Robinson has said he favours Unionist unity. One Conservative insider said:
“The Ulster Unionist leadership has a choice to make between Ulster Unionism and British Unionism. The whole purpose of this ( the Conservative/ Ulster Unionist link ) was to take the Ulster Unionist Party out of the sectarian gutter but now it seems the leadership is quite happy with the status quo.”
As mentioned above a senior Conservative said:
“There is absolutely no question of the Conservative Party being involved in any sectarian pact.”
Conservatives in London are adamant that the decision of three nominees in Northern Ireland who have withdrawn their names as Tory candidates was not in response to the Hatfield House talks.
They contend this happened because of ongoing delays in firming up candidates for the election.
Conservatives in Northern Ireland believe Ulster Unionists will mutiny at any absorption or merger with the DUP not just because the DUP will want to “swallow up” the UUP but because of the deep seated historical animosity towards the DUP.
A spokesperson said: “The grass-roots of Unionism want a Conservative link and a better future. They want blood from the DUP not handshakes.”
It is generally received wisdom that the current Tory/UU/DUP link is about agreed candidates in the forthcoming Westminster election and not to the Assembly in the event of an election.
A Northern Ireland Conservative insider said:
“The Conservatives are planning presently for a Westminster election but very senior Conservatives in London have made it clear they are in Northern Ireland for the long term. That means participation in Assembly and council elections.”