The Ulster Unionist Party’s sole MP Lady Sylvia Hermon today said she will “weigh up her options” after refusing to fight the next election under a joint banner with the Conservative Party.
The Tories and Ulster Unionists are fielding joint candidates across the North for the first time but Lady Hermon has refused to take the Conservative whip at Westminster.
This week her party formally announced her refusal to endorse their new political venture and today she said she is now considering her next move, with speculation that she may yet stand as an independent.
The Conservative Party has promised a new non-sectarian political option in the North, though the pledge was damaged recently by news of secret talks with the DUP and speculation of unionist moves to keep nationalists out of marginal seats.
Lady Sylvia would be favourite to hold her North Down seat if she defended it, but today she said: “I can’t pretend this has been an easy decision on my part. On the contrary, it has caused me considerable sadness, especially as I had hoped some amicable resolution could have been found.
“However, that did not happen, and current arrangements dictated that my decision had to be made before 5pm on Tuesday past.
“That was the deadline for Ulster Unionists to seek selection to fight the forthcoming election ’with the knowledge that they would stand under the Conservative and Unionist banner and would take the Conservative Whip in Westminster’.
“The simple truth is that I am unable to stand under that banner and, as I have said consistently, I would not take the Tory Whip at Westminster.
“It is, therefore, with sadness that I find myself in a very difficult place, and not at all where I would like to be just weeks ahead of an election campaign.”
She said: “I was elected as an Ulster Unionist in 2001 and again in 2005. That is my mandate and that is what I intend to fulfil until the day and hour a General Election is called and this Parliament dissolved.”
The MP added: “Over the next few days, I want to talk to constituents, friends and family before coming to a final decision.”
The Ulster Unionist Party and Conservatives last night decided on nine joint candidates to fight the forthcoming general election.
They agreed to nominate Daphne Trimble, wife of former UUP leader David Trimble, to run as a Conservative and Unionist for the highly-contested Lagan Valley.
It has also already been revealed that Trevor Ringland will fight East Belfast and former television presenter Mike Nesbitt will contest Strangford.
Leader Reg Empey said: “They are a formidable team and we hope that they will shortly be joined by the remaining candidates.
“This is an opportunity for the first time in a generation to vote for people who will be part of a national government and for people who will not be double jobbing but totally dedicated – sitting as full time members of parliament. This is what people demand and deserve.”
The rest of the candidates are: Bill Manwaring, West Belfast; Harry Hamilton, Lord Trimble’s old seat of Upper Bann; deputy leader Danny Kennedy, Newry and Armagh; John McCallister, South Down; Sandra Overend, Mid Ulster; Ross Hussey, West Tyrone.
The Ulster Unionists and Conservative Party have spent two years building their plans for a joint initiative, which has been endorsed by both party leaders Sir Reg and David Cameron.
Unionist rivals in the DUP had accused the parties of splitting the pro-union vote by promising to field candidates in all 18 Northern Ireland constituencies.
The Democratic Unionists called for a pact to field single unionist candidates in marginal seats to prevent them being won by nationalists.
The Conservatives have consistently rejected the call and said such an agreement would drag them into sectarian politics.
But in January it emerged that senior Tories held secret talks in England with UUP and DUP leaders, though they later denied that moves were under way to ensure Democratic Unionist support in any future hung parliament.
The Conservative/Ulster Unionist plans were further damaged when it emerged that the UUP and DUP had held their own discussions in Northern Ireland under the auspices of the Orange Order.
Mr Empey has since denied his party is planning a merger or pact with the DUP to keep Sinn Féin out of key posts.
Conservatives faced accusations they might undermine their impartiality in government over the issue of Northern Ireland by appearing to be closer to unionists than republicans.
But the party has insisted it will stand over existing agreements linked to the peace process and defended its plans for a new political force in the North that the entire community can support.