Page last updated at 14:13 GMT, Wednesday, 4 February 2009

UUP MLAs concerned about brand

David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey
The Conservatives and Ulster Unionists have been talking about increasing the ties between the parties since October 2007

by Kathleen Mullin
BBC Northern Ireland

A straw-poll of Ulster Unionist assembly members has revealed more than half are opposed to dropping Ulster from the name for electoral purposes.

The BBC spoke to all 18 MLAs following speculation that the proposed joint venture with the Conservative Party could lead to a new electoral brand.

A new Conservative and Ulster Unionist joint committee has been finalising proposals on the issue ahead of the European election, when the two parties aim to field a joint candidate.

There has been speculation that one option for the ballot paper is the "Conservative and Unionist Party", provided there is not legal or political issue.

When asked if they would approve an option that would drop Ulster from the name, 10 MLAs, speaking anonymously, were opposed.

In fact, a majority of the 10 were strongly opposed. One declared: "I was born an Ulster Unionist, I am still an Ulster Unionist and I will die one."

Another member of the old guard said he was an "Ulster Unionist all the way", and a third said that he would have strong objections to dropping Ulster if Northern Ireland or some other local branding was not included: "Without local identity, what's the point?"

David Cameron at the UUP party conference in December
David Cameron addressed the UUP party conference in December

Of the remaining eight, three were in favour and five would not comment.

Those who could live with the change indicated that their reasons were pragmatic.

One pointed out that the UUP had in the past used various names for electoral purposes.

The question of how far the UUP should ally itself with the Conservative Party could be crucial for their future electoral success.

One MLA, with an eye to a younger electorate, claimed "new votes could be won by creating a new force".

The straw poll suggests the leadership may have difficulty persuading key figures to compromise, even though the Ulster Unionist name would prevail for everyday business purposes.

Ulster Unionist councillor Mark Cosgrove, who sits on the joint working group, has urged everyone to await the final report before making up their minds.

"There's got to be a very clear linkage to unionism," he said.

"Obviously from the Conservatives perspective they will want clear links to their own name, brand and heritage.

"It was clear under the memorandum of understanding that any brand has to clearly reflect the identities of both groups, and obviously that is a Ulster Unionist identity and also a Conservative identity."

The survey also comes as Lady Sylvia Hermon, the party's sole MP, prepares to meet Conservative leader David Cameron.

The North Down MP is known to have concerns which are likely to be raised at Wednesday's meeting at Westminster.

One MLA who was contacted said that the matter was "far from settled", and stressed the need for consultation with the party's grass roots.

It is believed that a package of proposals could be put to the Ulster Unionist Executive this month.

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