Page last updated at 20:09 GMT, Friday, 29 January 2010

Conservatives - No Orange Order influence on UUP pact

Owen Paterson
Owen Paterson said the Orange Order would not influence candidate selection

The Orange Order has "no influence" over the Conservative's electoral pact with the UUP, the Conservative's Northern Ireland spokesman has said.

Owen Paterson was speaking after the BBC revealed the Order convened secret unity talks between the DUP and UUP.

The parties discussed the potential for pacts and a unionist bloc at Stormont.

Mr Paterson said he was told nothing of "any great consequence" had come out of the meeting and added the Tories were committed to "non-sectarian" politics.

The shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland confirmed that he had spoken to Sir Reg Empey on Friday morning, following the revelations the UUP leader had met the DUP leader at Orange Order headquarters in Belfast in December.

'Confidential meeting'

He said that Sir Reg had to deal with Northern Ireland "as it is" which meant meeting all kinds of organisations.

We are determined to put up 18 candidates, across Northern Ireland, who will be committed to non-sectarian, non-polarised politics.
Shadow NI Secretary Owen Paterson

In a statement on Friday afternoon, Sir Reg confirmed the Orange Order had invited the Ulster Unionist Party to a meeting with its Grand Master Robert Saulters.

"Mr Saulters wanted a private and confidential meeting to discuss 'ways and means of finding co-operation on the way forward," he said.

"I have respected his request for confidentiality. Sadly this was not respected by others.

"Despite a conversation and discussion on the issues that Mr Saulters wished to raise, no agreements were reached," Sir Reg said.

Tory talks

Mr Paterson reiterated that the Conservatives intended to field candidates in all 18 constituencies, to give people in Northern Ireland the chance to vote for politicians who could have real influence at the heart of government in Westminster.

Asked about the secret talks which he chaired between the UUP and DUP at Hatfield House, near London, earlier this month, Mr Paterson said his discussions were "something completely different".

"That was me trying to help move the unionist side along, mainly on the issue of policing and justice," he explained.

He said neither the UUP or DUP would make a move on issue "because they are looking over their shoulder at their neighbours".

He said that the Conservative leader David Camerson knew about the Hatfield meeting in advance and added that his party was "extremely concerned about the potential instability" of Northern Ireland's devolved government.

He added that the Tories wanted to see "power-sharing working properly" in the Stormont Executive and said it would be "most unfair" to attack his party for doing "anything which was irresponsible".

Damaged alliance

BBC Northern Ireland political editor Mark Devenport said the Tories had been "blind-sided" by the Orange Order meeting.

He added that the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force (UCUNF) brand identity which was forged in 2008, had been damaged by the revelations.

Earlier on Friday, Mr Paterson said he knew nothing about the Conservatives' electoral partner's involvement in the Orange Order meeting and was seeking an urgent meeting with the UUP leader.

On Tuesday, two former Conservative candidates who withdrew their nominations said it was partly because of a possible deal between the Ulster Unionists and DUP.

There has been speculation that Sheila Davidson and Peter McCann, who are both Catholic, had left in protest at talks hosted by Mr Paterson.

But the Tory spokesman said he believed the candidates were "mainly frustrated by delays" in the selection process.

BBC Newsnight political editor Michael Crick said: "Some in Belfast think that the Conservative-UUP pact is now effectively dead, and that Conservative leader David Cameron will be forced to announce its demise within the next few days."

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