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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 October 2005, 09:42 GMT 10:42 UK
Empey planning comeback for UUP

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Sir Reg Empey is regarded by some as a bit of a dry stick, but he started his first Ulster Unionist party conference speech as leader with a good joke, at the expense of the Conservative hopeful David Cameron.

Sir Reg Empey
Sir Reg Empey gave his first address to a UUP conference as leader

"Let me assure you" he told his party delegates "that since I took over as your leader I have not tried any Class A drugs".

"Although," he added, "some people probably think I must have been on them to stand for leader in the first place."

Certainly leading the UUP these days is not a passport to power.

The grandson of a Stormont prime minister, Johnny Andrews, got elected as a party officer. But no-one is betting on Sir Reg being first minister any time soon.

After the disturbances which followed the Whiterock parade, Sir Reg came under fire from liberals within his party for leaning too much towards the Orange Order and not supporting the police.

He rejected the charge, pointing to his statements condemning violence.

However in his speech he appeared to be consciously hitting some of the notes liberals want to hear. No equivocation on loyalist paramilitaries, but a clear declaration that they must disarm and "call it a day".

More than that, an admission that mainstream unionists cannot absolve themselves from responsibility for stirring up the emotions of those who swelled the loyalist ranks.

Sir Reg's mentions of politicians wearing paramilitary attire and providing cover for Ulster Resistance were a clear attempt to open out some clear blue water between himself and the DUP.

The new leader closed by slightly misquoting Arnold Schwarzenegger, vowing that "we'll be back".

However, both he and his audience know the scale of the challenge which faces the Ulster Unionists if they are to regain anything like the influence they once enjoyed.

Sir Reg is anticipating bilateral talks with the government and familiarisation sessions with ministers in the near future. All this he sees as part of the big push towards devolution expected in the new year.

Sir Reg called on loyalist paramilitaries to disarm

The Independent Monitoring Commission report on the first month of the IRA's new mode provided a foretaste of what that big push might be like.

The IMC stopped short of giving the IRA a clean bill of health. Wearing his medical hat, Lord Alderdice warned that a patient with such a prognosis might collapse any minute.

The commission said loyalist violence had been far worse than republican over the summer.

It was encouraged by the initial weeks following the IRA statement of 28 July 28.

But it said that the IRA had beaten one of its own members in early August and it referred to evidence of continuing intimidation and extortion.

Money

However Peter Hain turned a blind eye to these caveats, treating the IMC report as proof of a sea change in republican thinking.

He pressed ahead with the restoration of Sinn Fein's 120,000 Stormont grant and is recommending to MPs that they should give Sinn Fein MPs back around 400,000 in Westminster allowances.

The cash was originally docked in response to the Northern Bank robbery. Unusually the IMC made it clear that they didn't think the time was right to restore the money.

So much of the government's policy is now predicated on the IRA getting a "clean bill of health" in January that it is hard to imagine the occasional beating here or death threat there getting in the way.

Of course the DUP will require a higher standard of evidence than the government.

Responding to the Ulster Unionist leader's speech, the DUP's Peter Robinson said his party would take a firmer line than the man he described as "wriggling Reg".

The DUP would hold out until "we can make as safe a working assumption as possible that the Provisional IRA's terror machine has been dismantled, Sinn Fein has been democratised and a workable mechanism is in place to deal with any defaults."

The DUP has disassociated itself from loyalist violence.

But they will be on safer ground in setting the bar high for republicans if, like Sir Reg, they make it clear from the highest rooftop that loyalist paramilitaries must follow the IRA's example by destroying their guns and ordering an end to their violent activity.


SEE ALSO
'Call it a day', loyalists urged
22 Oct 05 |  Northern Ireland
NI settlement 'linked to parades'
25 Jun 05 |  Northern Ireland
'Global solution' call on parades
06 Jul 05 |  Northern Ireland

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