Page last updated at 08:41 GMT, Monday, 1 September 2008 09:41 UK

Former top dogs feeling the pinch

By Martina Purdy
BBC NI political correspondent

They used to be the big beasts of Northern Ireland politics.

However, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP are not only lagging in the polls - their latest finances show them in the red.

The UUP has suffered both electorally and financially with the rise of the DUP. Indeed, the once undisputed voice of unionism has sunk into third place - and its finances have slumped too, with an operating loss of 400,000.

Bank notes

But party treasurer Mark Cosgrove insists it is not all doom and gloom and claims the party's future is bright.

"Our actual donations and subscriptions from membership were up by nearly 40%, so I think there is clear evidence allied to recent opinion polls and obviously a certain by-election that the party is very solidly on its way back," he said.

Mr Cosgrove also looked forward to the potential that could come from partnership with the Conservative Party.

The operating loss would have been worse had the Ulster Unionists not had their east Belfast headquarters Cunningham House revalued. Mr Cosgrove said the party has assets that put it in the black by 700,000.

The party will be holding a strategy meeting shortly, involving its new fundraising officer Eddie Rea. It is the first time the UUP has created such a post - and the new officer will work with similar fundraising across the party's constituencies.

In the mean time, the party is tightening its belt - to avoid a cash flow problem - and that could mean vacating and leasing its headquarters in favour of smaller premises, according to Mr Cosgrove.

"We are entering into negotiations. We are certainly not selling the property because of the current economic climate and we have no need to sell it.

"So we are retaining all options open to us and that is one of the options. But nothing has been concluded yet," he said.

As for the SDLP, it sank into the red last year by 130,000 just as it hit fourth place in the assembly poll.

Cunnungham House
UUP headquarters have been valued at 700,000

But, like the Ulster Unionist Party, it also has a valuable asset in its headquarters.

The latest accounts show its Ormeau property valued at close to 250,000 but treasurer Peter McEvoy insists it is worth more than twice that.

He acknowledged that cash flow can be a difficulty and that running and staff costs are relatively high. But he said the party has been investing in people and improving its communications.

"The future of the party and future organisation of the party depends very much on the quality of the people you employ and you have to pay decent money to get decent people and we have always tried to do that," Mr McEvoy said.

"That would be one reason why our costs have gone up somewhat in this last year. Having said that, this year we have addressed that and we have pulled together a very, very tight budget."

Fundraising

While the assembly election last year hit the party's finances, Mr McEvoy said the party's fundraising committees in New York, Dublin and London have made progress.

"We have had a number of quite successful dinners - the John Hume tribute dinner in New York, which was very useful to us and we have both the London and Dublin operations which are quite active."

But Mr McEvoy said the party would have to redouble its efforts because new regulations brought in last year have imposed fundraising restrictions.

Assembly members are now contributing financially, but Mr McEvoy declined to give details.

DUP and Sinn Fein finances for Northern Ireland showed them in the black, but most parties in NI agree financing is an ongoing challenge.

The government is currently considering proposals for state funding of political parties.





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