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Serious soul searching ahead for UUP

14 May 10 05:53 GMT

By Martina Purdy
Political Correspondent

The Ulster Unionist assembly team gathered this week, in the aftermath of a disastrous election, to hear what their leader, Sir Reg Empey was going to do. Whether they wanted him to stay or go, they were disappointed.

Because Sir Reg, in his address, kept them guessing. Members were instead informed that the party's executive would meet this weekend. There were also references to a "process." A few in the room might have known what this meant.

Despite Strangford MLA David McNarry's declaration that Sir Reg was "finished," there are attempts being made to keep him in place.

He's coming under pressure to stay, according to some sources. One insider suggested it is self-preservation and fear of the alternative that is motivating some key figures to encourage Sir Reg not to quit.

But those who know him suggest his instincts will be to go, rather than cling on. And he could take refuge in the House of Lords.

It's not just Sir Reg's fate that the executive will have to consider on Saturday. There's also the matter of Ucunf - the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force. The alliance failed to win a single seat although, in terms in votes cast, results were patchy.

Was it a bad idea or simply a badly executed idea?

One senior figure attached to the project told the BBC this week that in retrospect Ucunf was "clumsily implemented." A reference no doubt to the fact that rows about candidates dragged on so long that the final line-up was not in place until the last minute.

The source, in line with some others in the party, cautioned against a knee-jerk reaction and insisted the project wasn't dead. "A radical review is needed," he said.

The fact that the Conservatives are now in government makes them an attractive friend right now, if not a partner.

Bavarian model

Another Conservative-Unionist enthusiast said there was still scope for a relationship. He cited a Bavarian model, whereby the CSU party operated autonomously in its regional assembly but formed one faction with a sister party in the national parliament.

This presumably means that the Ulster Unionists would be left to their own devices in assembly and Westminster elections while maintaining relations.

But there are others in the party who think Lady Sylvia Hermon, who was elected in North Down on a landslide last week, and the now independent MLA Alan McFarland, called it right: that Ulster Unionist voters are not Tories.

One wonders how much any of the others who stuck by Ucunf really liked it.

"They don't want a Conservative about the place," one political observer wryly noted of the Ulster Unionists as they repeatedly turned their noses up at Conservative candidates on the joint ticket.

Only a small fraction of the 17 candidates, such as Ian Parsley, came from the Conservative ranks. "Ulster Unionists want candidates with Conservative tags, not the other way around," was how insider summed it up.

Is it impossible that Mr McFarland and Lady Hermon would return to the fold?

Certainly Basil McCrea, the MLA for Lagan Valley, would argue that the way forward is to turn away from the DUP, and Conservative path - and attract voters back.

Under this plan, there would be distance from the DUP and an attempt to appeal to liberal unionists who might be tempted towards Alliance. Mr McCrea has a vision for modernisation but it is anathema to traditionalists who fear a leadership bid from him.

Others in the party such as David McNarry and deputy leader Danny Kennedy are said to favour the unionist unity option.

Their problem would be to convince fellow Ulster Unionists that it is not just being swallowed up by the DUP lion and that the DUP and Ulster Unionists are culturally compatible.

There are stories circulating in the assembly that in some areas of Fermanagh-South Tyrone the two parties didn't work that well together. This was put down to "personality clashes."

Mr McNarry has said that the beleaguered DUP leader Peter Robinson is an impediment to a new relationship.

Some say the unity option has some urgency because of concerns that Martin McGuinness could take the first minister's job if Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party in an assembly election next year.

It is possible the DUP could still win the lion's share of seats next year without realignment but this is far from guaranteed. It is however more likely now that the TUV has effectively been seen off.

There are also fears among some seasoned Ulster Unionists that the DUP would simply lure them into unity talks only to withdraw ahead of an election and try to blame them for its failure.

If Sir Reg departs, then Basil McCrea is widely expected to make a pitch for the leadership.

To counter him, the other like-minded potentials, Mr Kennedy, and Fermanagh MLA Tom Elliott, among them, are thought to be considering whether only only one of them should go forward.

Mr Kennedy has been described as "a safe pair of hands." When this was put to one MLA, he countered: "A safe pair of hands? Is that what we need?"

So the Ulster Unionists have some serious soul searching to do, with or without Sir Reg. There are no quick fixes.

And if that wasn't enough to contend with, they have to decide who should greet the new Conservative prime minister when he visits, as expected, next week.

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