The Ulster Unionist Party was accused of being in disarray tonight after making an agreement about next year’s European election with a small hardline unionist party – and then insisting it was not an electoral pact.
Party leader Reg Empey and senior party colleagues met MEP Jim Allister, who will be seeking to retain for his recently formed Traditional Unionist Voice the seat he won when a member of the Democratic Unionist Party.
He quit the DUP over its decision to go into government with Sinn Féin and the two have missed no opportunity to snipe at each other ever since – and the DUP is determined to take the seat back next summer.
Northern Ireland returns three MEPs, traditionally one UUP member, one DUP member and one nationalist – but at the last election Sinn Féin wrested the seat from the SDLP.
In what appeared to be a clear bid to stop the DUP getting back the seat Mr Allister took with him when he walked away, Sir Reg and Mr Allister announced an agreement to recommend unionist supporters use the transfer of votes between unionist candidates in what will be the PR election.
In a joint statement, the two parties said: “With the European election, as the next scheduled election, coming up in June, we agreed on the priority of retaining two unionist representatives in Europe.
“This should be the overriding priority of all unionists in respect of this election. Such is only attainable by full utilisation of transfers between the unionist candidates.
“Thus, we agreed to recommend such a voting strategy to all unionist voters.”
It looked like an electoral pact and sounded like an electoral pact – given that three into two does not go and there is no chance of unionism taking all three seats.
But no, Sir Reg insisted it was not a pact, he had been misunderstood and he would be having talks with the DUP as well about maximising the unionist vote.
“The Ulster Unionist Party has not agreed an electoral or political pact with the TUV,” he said.
Attempting to clarify a confused situation he added: “Representatives from both parties met this morning and concluded that given the fact that there could be three or four pro-Union candidates in the forthcoming Euro election, it was important to maximise the pro-Union turnout in June 2009 to secure two pro-Union seats.
“We will be meeting the DUP at a later stage.”
Whether what the UUP called “clarification” convinced their political opponents or not, they came under fire.
The Alliance Party accused the UUP of “cynical and unprincipled politics”.
Assembly member Dr Stephen Farry said Sir Reg’s party was all over the place. “Some days they seem to want to reinvent the party as a moderate, constructive movement. On other days they seem intent in reinforcing the most reactionary and backwoods voices in this society.”
In recent times they had courted the Progressive Unionist party while the UVF which it represents remained an active paramilitary organisation, he said, and were currently trying to come to an arrangement with the Conservative Party.
He questioned what David Cameron would make of the pact as he attempted to market a progressive image across the UK.
The SDLP Assembly member Declan O’Loan said he found the joint statement on voting strategy “sad and depressing”.
“One month the UUP are cosying up to the SDLP, the next they are merging with the Conservatives, next they are watering that down, and now they are aligning themselves with the TUV whose trademark is absolute opposition to partnership government.”
He added: “This indecision and vacillation from the Ulster Unionists shows that this section of unionism does not know where it is going.”
The DUP was, surprisingly, muted in its response, agreeing it was its priority that two unionists were returned next June.
It was an election where the people would decide who spoke for the North, said a party spokesman.
“It is clear that the DUP, as the largest unionist party, is best placed to ensure that unionism once again tops the poll in Europe and keeps unionism ahead,” he added.
:: Meanwhile DUP First Minister Peter Robinson told the Assembly he is due to meet Taoiseach Brian Cowen this week.
The news came after telephone conversations between Mr Cowen and Mr Robinson over the continuing problems preventing a meeting of the Stormont ministerial Executive.