Page last updated at 18:23 GMT, Saturday, 6 December 2008

Cameron shines at UUP conference

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

David Cameron arrived in Belfast to spray a little star dust on the ageing and frankly old fashioned Ulster Unionist party.

David Cameron
David Cameron was touched with star dust at the conference

But they ended up spraying some on him.

For the first time the party had arranged a creche for delegates' children.

On his way in to the conference, the Conservative leader got down on his haunches to watch the kids painting something glittery, and ended up with their glitter all over him.

That explains why his chin looked suspiciously sparkly during his keynote speech.

The Ulster Unionists have had to keep their chins up through some difficult times.

The conference venue, the Ramada Hotel in Belfast, has some bad memories for them.

It was the scene of many a Unionist Council meeting which pitted one wing of the party against the other as they tried to come to terms with the politics of power sharing.

Delayed

But this year the Ramada had a different feel.

The party delayed their conference whilst they worked on the details of their partnership with the Conservatives.

That delay took them closer to Christmas, meaning delegates made their way in past a big Christmas tree.

On top of that, they had a special guest, a leader who could one day be prime minister.

He gave his unionist audience what they wanted; a commitment to never be neutral when it comes to supporting the union, and a line which came close to repudiating a famous policy statement by the former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke.

Back in November 1990, Peter Brooke declared that Britain had no "selfish strategic or economic interest" in Northern Ireland.

The speech was one of the signals to the republican movement which laid the groundwork for the IRA ceasefire four years later.

David Cameron deliberately used the same phrase, insisting that he does have a selfish and strategic interest in utilising the talents of people from throughout the UK.

The Conservatives are holding out the possibility of voters in Northern Ireland returning an MP who could conceivably be part of a future cabinet in London.

They also argue that their partnership with the Ulster Unionists will enable the electorate to have a say in national and international politics, ending what Mr Cameron calls the "semi-detached" nature of Northern Ireland politics.

Sir Reg Empey, somewhat overshadowed at his own conference, hopes the "new political force" will help the UUP appeal beyond the religious divide.

There were some grounds for optimism at a "meet the people" session.

Impressed

David Cameron took his jacket off, joking that he was having a "Tony Blair moment" but without the "hand of history" on his shoulder.

Most of the voters he met seemed impressed, including a Catholic woman called Kate from west Belfast who told the BBC it was the first time she had engaged with a British politician about social and economic issues, and was willing to give the Tories a chance.

However there are complications ahead.

Putting up a joint candidate in the European elections is straightforward as Jim Nicholson already sits with the Conservative group there.

But when it comes to Westminster the partnership could prove more difficult.

The UUP's only MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, has voted consistently with Labour.

Absent from the party conference following the death of her husband, the former RUC Chief Constable Sir Jack Hermon, Lady Sylvia is thought to remain either lukewarm or opposed to the Conservative connection.

Even if internal dissent is overcome, there is still the DUP to reckon with.

They don't like the Conservatives invading their backyard and this partnership could come back to haunt Mr Cameron should he require DUP support after the next general election.

The Conservative leader insists the move is the result of his passionate unionism principles, not a tactical calculation.

Thanks to the unionist children's paint, David Cameron certainly glittered at this conference.

It will require this partnership to be tested at the elections before we can decide whether that glitter is political gold.



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