Page last updated at 22:37 GMT, Thursday, 28 January 2010

Orange Order convened 'unionist unity' talks

Orange Order march
"Unionist unity" talks were hosted by the Orange Order last month

The BBC has learned that the Orange Order convened secret unity talks between the two main unionist parties, the DUP and UUP, in early December.

Party leaders Peter Robinson and Sir Reg Empey attended the talks at the Orange Order's headquarters in Belfast.

The BBC's Hearts and Minds programme said the two parties discussed the possibility of electoral pacts and forming a unionist bloc at Stormont.

The talks did not involve the Tories, the UUP's current election partner.

The discussions at Schomberg House were also attended by the DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds and the Ulster Unionist MLA David McNarry.

They were chaired by the Orange Grand Master Robert Saulters and the Grand Secretary Drew Nelson.

The talks took place prior to this month's secret discussions between the two parties at Hatfield House in England which were chaired by the Conservative spokesman Owen Paterson.

Fall out

Mr McNarry confirmed to the programme that the talks had taken place, but said the UUP and DUP remained "two separate, definite entities as political parties".

"At the Assembly, we knock ten bells out of each other over issues, but specifically around policies, and if the policies aren't right, then you can forget about coming together.

"The last thing that I would want to be involved in is raising expectations, going into something and doing what unionists have done before - that is being in there for a couple of hours and then fall out with each other," he said.

Speaking on Hearts and Minds , the DUP's Sammy Wilson said that if there were opportunities to get the two parties cooperating then he thought it was "right and proper" to do so.

'Anti-democratic'

The Orange Order told the programme that the meeting was private and would not give any further details.

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey said the revelations exposed the Orange Order as a "very political organisation" and added that people would view the talks as "simply sectarian and anti-democratic".

It is understood that despite the presence of the Orange Order leaders, the issue of parades was not discussed.

However it might have been on the agenda for further talks planned to take this place next month which were postponed because of the crisis over devolution of justice powers.



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