Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Saturday, 24 October 2009 17:13 UK

Did Hague rock the UUP conference?

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

(L-r) William Hague and Harry Hamilton
William Hague and Harry Hamilton both attended the UUP conference

If you were invited to an event which included a Freddy Mercury impersonator and a bloke who used to boast about drinking 14 pints of beer a day, you might assume the venue was a pub with plenty of sawdust on the floor.

However, one look around the Grand Ballroom at Belfast's Europa Hotel would have disabused you of this notion.

For the collection of extremely respectable and frequently grey haired ladies and gentlemen in the audience seemed entirely in keeping with past Ulster Unionist annual conferences.

Alongside the singing of the national anthem, the less traditional Queen tribute was provided by the presence of Harry Hamilton, now in the lead for the party's Upper Bann Westminster nomination.

And that heavy drinker?

That was the Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague, whose visit was intended to set the seal on the UUP's electoral alliance with the Conservatives.

In truth, the atmosphere didn't seem quite as exciting as last year, when David Cameron himself put in an appearance.

New vision

Since then the two parties have fought their first joint election, and with Jim Nicholson the first unionist to be deemed elected (even though the DUP got more first preference votes) there has been a confident air about those involved in the joint Conservative and Ulster Unionist movement.

Examining the tallies from that Euro count they believe they have the DUP in their sights in places like South Antrim and Upper Bann.

Nevertheless, everyone knows that next year's Westminster elections present a far more complex and difficult challenge than returning a well-known face like Jim Nicholson.

Both William Hague and Sir Reg Empey tried to stick to the generalities of a new vision.

Mr Hague told UUP supporters "we are not interested in a person's religion or community background, only whether they are up to the job".

Sir Reg Empey
Sir Reg Empey said his party would reject a back room deal

Sir Reg argued that "we are offering a political and electoral force which can actually deliver the difference which others can only dream about".

However, with no announcement yet on a list of agreed joint candidates, questions abound.

What about double jobbing?

Does the pledge to end the practice mean no MLAs can stand, or is promising to quit Stormont if elected to Westminster sufficient?

What about those activists who favour local pacts with the DUP?

Will they remain happy if, as expected, the joint force stick to their declared line of contesting every seat?

What about those UUP supporters who are left of centre?

Should the leadership take heart from the fact that only four activists signed a letter of protest?

There was no disguising one notable absence from the conference

And what about non-sectarian unionism?

Mr Hague was applauded when he spoke of religion being irrelevant, but privately some UUP supporters openly doubt whether a Catholic candidate can take votes off the DUP in certain seats.

Whilst the presence of the shadow foreign secretary would have been very welcome for most UUP activists, there was no disguising one notable absence from the conference.

Although Sir Reg Empey publicly thanked the party's only MP Lady Sylvia Hermon for keeping the Ulster Unionist flag flying in Westminster, her decision to stay away, whilst unsurprising, spoke volumes.

The candidate selection in her North Down constituency has been pushed back but as things stand there seems every chance that Lady Sylvia could end up going independent, battling either a Conservative such as Ian Parsley or a fellow Ulster Unionist.

The many unanswered questions should make the business of joint Conservative and Unionist candidate selection, and the subsequent campaign fascinating.

The not so new force has passed another hurdle, but, as a colleague quipped, it's still uncertain which Freddie Mercury song will turn out to be the most appropriate: "We Are The Champions" or "Another One Bites The Dust".

William Hague said Northern Ireland can play an important part in the UK



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