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Last Updated: Friday, 1 September 2006, 19:53 GMT 20:53 UK
Empey may accentuate the positive
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
Political editor, BBC Northern Ireland

When the Ulster Unionist assembly team assembles next week to discuss the future of their link with the Progressive Unionists they will need to take a pair of kitchen scales into the room.

On one side of the scales they can stack the positive moves from the UVF in recent weeks.

The loyalist paramilitary group has been credited with playing a constructive role during the marching season.

Sir Reg Empey
Sir Reg Empey is pondering his party's assembly link to the PUP

Then came the publication of a list of its members killed during the Troubles.

The inclusion of the firebrand former DUP councillor George Seawright raised eyebrows, but the PUP's David Ervine argued that the list should be seen as an indication that the UVF felt its campaign had reached its conclusion.

As the month closed came the bizarre revelation that the UVF had tipped the Irish authorities off about a bomb it claims to have planted at the Sinn Fein annual conference in 1981.

Irish army experts moved in to the conference venue, Dublin's Mansion House, to look for the device, which the loyalists said had failed to explode.

However, a suspect object examined by the Irish army did not contain explosives.

The evening of the Mansion House security operation, the BBC learned that the UVF was considering re-engaging with General de Chastelain's Disarmament Commission.

The former MLA Billy Hutchinson could be re-appointed as the UVF's link man with the commission.

UUP sources indicate their leader Sir Reg Empey might have fixed on the end of August as a point at which to re-evaluate his party's assembly alliance with the PUP leader David Ervine.

31 August is the cut off date for the Independent Monitoring Commission as it collects evidence for its October report on paramilitary activity.

So the late rush of positive UVF gestures gives Sir Reg something to ponder on, although loyalist sources say the moves are more to do with preparing the UVF's own grassroots than impressing the UUP leader.

david ervine
David Ervine joined the Ulster Unionist group at the NI assembly

On the other side of the kitchen scales, Sir Reg knows his only MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, remains profoundly unimpressed by his decision to become political bedfellows with David Ervine.

With few expecting a power-sharing executive to be formed anytime soon, critics argue that the Ulster Unionists have suffered sustained negative publicity over their PUP alliance without securing any benefit in terms of an extra ministerial place at Stormont.

The IMC report due in the first week of October will cover incidents like the shooting of the alleged informer Mark Haddock and, potentially, the murder of the Scottish man Ronald Mackie in Tobermore.

Some worry that the IMC could not only criticise the UVF but might consider fining both the Progressive Unionists and their allies in the UUP.

The doubters see the October IMC report as an oncoming train.

They want the UUP to get off the tracks during September.

But if the Ulster Unionists bail out now they will get little credit should the UVF transform themselves into an organisation wedded to peaceful means.

Lady Sylvia Hermon
Lady Sylvia Hermon has criticised the link

Interviewed on Inside Politics, Sir Reg Empey said he wanted to see that transformation completed "the quicker the better".

He will look closely at the IMC's findings as he doesn't want to "live a lie" when it comes to peace or violence.

Despite reports that the UVF may make their position clear in late September, senior loyalist sources reckon the organisation remains trapped by a public statement it made in April indicating it did not intend to move before the 24 November devolution deadline.

If that is the case, Sir Reg could face a difficult job balancing up both sides of the kitchen scales in the months ahead.

UUP 'to clarify' links with PUP
15 Aug 06 |  Northern Ireland
Empey addresses party executive
23 Jun 06 |  Northern Ireland
UUP 'regrets' PUP link defection
12 Jun 06 |  Northern Ireland
Empey rejects MP's loyalist worry
09 Jun 06 |  Northern Ireland

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