Inter party talks involving the Conservative Party in Britain, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party are set to escalate in the next week to ten days. This follows the disclosure that last Sunday, Northern Ireland’s likely next Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, held secret talks with Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds, Sammy Wilson and Ulster Unionist deputy party leader Danny Kennedy, Tom Elliott, David Campbell and Mark Cosgrove. The discussions took place at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.In an official statement the Conservative party confirmed: “Private talks with a number of senior Unionists took place, the purpose of which was to help promote greater political stability.”
News of the surprise meeting has energised the broad Unionist base according to one senior party insider. Conservatives in London are coy on their real motive for becoming centrally involved with the two main Unionist parties. The Tories are already in a relationship with Ulster Unionists and had been working on a Westminster electoral strategy. There has been no agreement on the choice of candidates.
Any suggestion to the Conservative party that its motive for securing support of DUP and Ulster Unionist MPS in advance of an election, being linked to worries of a hung parliament, is treated with the same contempt as an indiscretion at supper in Hatfield House!
Talk of Unionist unity has already put a pep in the step of Unionists back in Belfast. “This would be the desire. All candidates would be willing to take the Tory whip. The Tories are after hung parliament support. Once the polls came through they did their head counts.” said one well placed source.
Unionist unity has been thematically gathering momentum in the past three weeks as the prospect of Sinn Fein becoming the biggest political party came into view in the driver’s rear mirror.
Sinn Fein’s emergence as the largest party has been anticipated against a backdrop of a three way split in Unionism. “No Unionist would serve in an administration under Martin McGuinness.” said a DUP spokesman.
Another Unionist said: “The big prize is Unionist unity. People are looking for stability in a settled Unionist society.”
Peter Robinson’s inclusion in the DUP team going to Hatfield House last Sunday was something of a surprise. He had already stepped aside from some of his first minister’s duties making it known he wanted to attend to ‘domestic responsibilities.’
Not everybody is totally wedded to being in bed with the Conservatives. One individual, who is sympathetic, sounded this warning: I am not keen on the Tories manipulating parties here. I do believe in maximising unionist strength however.
The drive for Unionist unity and the tie in with the Tories are quite advanced in thinking. One source said:
The mood in Unionism has already transformed on news of this development. This is a clear cut situation where once again the Unionist people are a bit ahead of their politicians and Unionist unity would protect us from the situation where Sinn Fein could hold the post of First Minister.
Interestingly any Unionist coalition would want to retain the current method, the Dhondt system for election to the Executive. The Ulster Unionist spokesperson source said:
We have to work hard to establish that: the last thing we can do, is be triumphant. Sinn Fein is in to stay. We have to show good faith to our opponents. We have a chance to stabilise Unionism, to send a signal that sectarian politics is something of the past. Any unity will be built on policies not on personalities.
One of those familiar with the Unionist unity philosophy spoke of “an opportunity to shift those with baggage in both parties. There has always been ‘never say die militant Unionists’ in our parties.”
The same source, mindful of the turmoil in the DUP said: Peter Robinson is cute enough to see how the wind is blowing. He has thirty six members in the Assembly. We have sixteen. Jim Allister will take some of these. The DUP and the Ulster Unionists could end up with twenty four each. This would mean that a coalition of Unionists could have forty eight seats guaranteeing the post of First Minister.
All of this back-room discussion within Unionism and in conjunction with the Conservatives in England is taking place at a time of turbulence in the political environs of Parliament Buildings with pressure on Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen to become centrally involved in hot house talks to iron out differences between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein.
The two Prime Ministers are meeting in London to take stock.
This new alliance within Unionism and with the party in waiting which could form the next government at Westminster has the capacity to revolutionise politics in Northern Ireland. Many nationalists and the Alliance party fear Unionism is opting for a sectarian head count.
In politics there is normally cause and effect. That is what is potentially worrying.