Page last updated at 12:58 GMT, Saturday, 23 January 2010

UUP leader Sir Reg Empey warns of early election

Sir Reg Empey
Sir Reg Empey denied the the UUP alliance with the Tories was damaged

The Ulster Unionist leader has warned there could be an assembly election "within weeks" if the crisis over policing and justice is not resolved.

Sir Reg Empey also gave his strongest indication yet that the UUP may join forces with the DUP following a Stormont poll.

He denied the UUP/Conservative alliance had been damaged in recent days.

He said it was confined to Westminster and European elections only and spoke of a need for "alternative options".

'Matter of regret'

Events that have taken place overnight clearly indicate that we have to take measures now in the event that we could be facing an election in a week.
Sir Reg Empey, UUP leader

As he arrived to address a meeting of his party executive in Belfast, to discuss the collapse of the talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the UUP leader said his party was prepared for an early election and would fight it "with vigour".

Sir Reg was also asked about speculation that three prospective Tory candidates had withdrawn their Westminster nominations over frustration that the UUP had not sorted out a joint nomination process.

He said it was a "matter of regret" but was an internal matter for the Conservatives.

The UUP leader denied that the Tory alliance was damaged by the withdrawals and said the two parties would continue to work together.

"As far as we are concerned, our alliance is fine. We are continuing to work together and that is fine and I think in the current circumstances, the rationale of having a series of alternative options in Northern Ireland should be clear to most people.

"We don't know - and I always regarded this as a long term insurance policy for the province - because there was always an inbuilt instability at Stormont," he said.

Sir Reg said the UUP's key task now was to "try and ensure that Stormont survives".

'Hermon's future'

"We have a series of very significant things all colliding at the one time. We know we have a forthcoming Westminster election, but we could have an assembly election that precedes that, and we have to deal with the situation in the Assembly as well," he explained.

Lady Sylvia Hermon
Lady Sylvia Hermon is a critic of the UUP/Conservative electoral pact

"Obviously we have no arrangements with the Conservatives as regards the Assembly, so we have to deal in the Assembly with what is there."

Asked if the future of Lady Sylvia Hermon would be discussed at the UUP executive meeting, Sir Reg said the issue had been overtaken by the crisis at Stormont and was no longer on the agenda.

He said overnight events "clearly indicate that we have to take measures now in the event that we could be facing an election in a week".

Lady Hermon is the party's only sitting MP and had been openly critical of the UUP's alliance with the Conservative party.

The UUP's Michael McGimpsey said the talks with the DUP and Conservatives were unlikely to lead to a new party being formed.

"I think that it's wrong to use the word merger," he said.

"It's not on our agenda as far as I'm aware, any form of merger, that's not where we're going."

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