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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 November, 2004, 18:05 GMT
Can UUP unity translate to election?
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

The South Antrim MP David Burnside walked out at an early stage in the proceedings of this year's Ulster Unionist conference.

David Trimble at the UUP conference
David Trimble believes the UUP can recover lost ground
He was angered by some criticism directed at him by the conference chairman James Cooper, who Mr Burnside labelled a "political pigmy".

Aside from that protest, the absence of Jeffrey Donaldson and his supporters made this year's Ulster Unionist gathering appear a far more united occasion than the party has seen in recent years.

There also seemed to be rather more young party members in attendance than before.

QUICK GUIDE

But will that sense of unity translate into a comeback when the Ulster Unionists have to fight a Westminster election, probably in May of next year?

The omens are not good.

Although party leader David Trimble says that with a bigger turnout they can recover lost ground, the orthodoxy is that the DUP is hard on the heels of the Ulster Unionists in East Antrim, whilst the party will face tough contests in South Antrim, Upper Bann and North Down.

Obviously the battle lines will be determined by the state of the process, deal or no deal, when the voters go to the polls.

However, the Ulster Unionists may have to wait for the DUP to drop the ball, either in the negotiations, or in a future Executive, rather more disastrously than they have done so far.

Mr Trimble referred in his conference speech to a government paper which he believed would soon be circulated, setting out the latest thinking from London and Dublin on the sticking points.

In the corridors at the conference, the indications were that this paper would be passed to the parties on Wednesday.

The politicians would then be given about a week to mull over their options before the DUP and Sinn Fein are invited to give their considered response to the prime ministers.

David Burnside
David Burnside walked out of the party's conference
If the two biggest parties give a deal the thumbs up, it is likely Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern would want to get together to put their stamp on any agreement.

Legal changes to the Stormont rules could be signalled in the Queen's Speech to Parliament, which is due on 23 November.

However, the DUP's Peter Robinson has reiterated his demand for a "visual aspect" to IRA decommissioning, something Sinn Fein has so far ruled out.

If the logjam over visual disarmament remains and the parties cannot move ahead, the governments will have to consider their options.

A reduction in assembly members' salaries seems the least that ministers might consider.

Fright or reassurance?

Some predict more radical action, such as closing Stormont down.

However, Bertie Ahern has talked about an opportunity to restore devolution not coming again until 2006.

Although that comment was no doubt meant to frighten the parties into action, some have taken it as reassurance that the governments really intend to go on rolling their rock up the same old mountainside for at least the next year.

The relatively positive moves from the UDA may have a slight knock-on effect on the wider process.

But the betting is that the DUP, Sinn Fein and the IRA will make their own decisions in their own time, based on their reading of what the fine detail of any deal will do for them.

They will have both next year's elections and the longer term very much in mind.

mark.devenport@bbc.co.uk


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SEE ALSO:
UUP gathers for conference
13 Nov 04 |  Northern Ireland


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