Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Paterson denies Elliott his leadership pledge.

This morning’s Belfast Telegraph confirms that the government will not change the mechanism for selecting the First and Deputy First Ministers.  Yesterday Owen Paterson told the Assembly and Executive Review Committee that he won’t amend the 2006 St Andrews Act by Order-in-Council.

That’s another bitter blow for Tom Elliott, who ran his UUP leadership campaign on the premise that he could persuade the government to do just that.  No doubt the Conservatives expressed sympathy for the Ulster Unionist position that the Belfast Agreement was unjustifiably tampered with at St Andrews.

It was already clear that the game was up last week though.  The News Letter was informed by a third party that Mr Elliott stormed out of a meeting with Paterson over the issue.  The report prompted O’Neill to ask whether the latest UUP - Conservative deal was already unravelling.

It’s an interesting question.  The two ‘partners’ are remarkably shy about outlining the exact nature of their new relationship.  Is the UUP now the Conservative franchisee in Northern Ireland?  Is it bound to take the Tory whip at Westminster and in Europe, in the next set of elections?  The local Tory organisation remains in place, after all, and there are whispers that it is about to increase its campaigning capacity.

It would be wrong to claim that the Conservative / UUP partnership has not delivered anything for Northern Ireland.  Cooperation between Owen Paterson and Lord Empey played a critical role in delivered a deal for PMS savers and the two parties have driven the case for lower Corporation Tax here together, against a background of scepticism.

Whatever informal discussions took place on the issue of the OFMDFM mechanism, though, Elliott was unwise to make his influence on the issue a critical feature of the leadership campaign.  He asked the question and he was flatly denied.  Pretty simple really.

The Conservatives backed down where the Assembly elections were concerned.  Running candidates would have entailed either severing the UUP connection for good or compelling cooperation on the ground.

That doesn’t mean that the current situation will be allowed to drift indefinitely.  UCUNF, for all the confused messages which it issued, at least formed a shared platform for the two parties.  At the current time there is a link, but no-one is exactly sure what it means.

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