The venue was Hatfield House, home of Lord Cranborne, the former Tory MP* and peer who opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement negotiated by Margaret Thatcher and has long been regarded as a “friend of unionism”.
There is a whiff of suggestion that David Cameron would welcome an alliance between the DUP and UUP to bolster the unionist cause in Northern Ireland.
As Robinson reveals:
Some who attended the talks insist that they also focused on the dream of “unionist unity” – co-operation or, perhaps in the long term, merger, between the UUP and DUP – which could prevent Sinn Fein’s electoral triumph and, in Westminster elections, deliver a dozen unionist MPs who might be expected to support the Conservatives. Very helpful indeed if David Cameron faces a hung Parliament after the next election.
This reminded me of a coffee I had with a senior(ish) Tory before Christmas.
He predicted that Cameron would rather enter a coalition with the DUP (which has 9 MPs) than the Liberal Democrats. His reasoning: the Lib Dems would extract much more difficult concessions from the Tories and would – with 60 or 70 MPs – be harder to ignore.
Yet the more moderate UUP is a diminished force in Westminster, with only one member of Parliament. Peter Robinson, the current leader of the DUP, is more pragmatic than his predecessor.
However, my conversation was before the Iris Robinson scandal broke, meaning it might have been overtaken by events – but the Hatfield House talks will continue to provoke similar speculation.
There is annoyance in the Tory camp that this the meeting (the weekend before last) is being spun as an attempt to cook up a new unionist alliance in Northern Ireland. They insist that their only intention was to get the DUP and UUP together to work together on solving the “impasse” in giving policing and justice powers to Stormont. It was a “serious attempt to get them to co-operate a bit more, a nudge forward”, says one person who was there.
It is true that the issue of closer co-operation (ie a united unionists) was raised by at least one person present. “That always happens in such circumstances,” I’m told*. But this was incidental and not the raison d’etre of the gathering.
The formal Tory position is still that it will – together with the UUP – foot 18 PPCs in Ulster as “Conservative and Unionist” candidates.
The last thing David Cameron would want as incoming PM is a new Northern Ireland crisis, they say: which is entirely believable. “The government should take a hold of themselves rather than trying to create artificial dividing lines,” I’m told.
* There are two seats, South Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone, which many unionists believe should be theirs if only they buried the hatchet.