Northern Ireland

More questions than answers over DUP-UUP discussions

Peter Robinson
Image caption Peter Robinson is said to be in favour of one unionist party

On the surface, they are just talks about closer co-operation between two unionist parties.

But, one unionist joked to me, they are turning into Watergate. Who knew what and when? And how far up the chain does it go?

But, jocularity aside, these are serious issues and the lack of clarity around the DUP-UUP talks is adding to the intrigue and speculation. And it's threatening the stability of the UUP.

Where to start? One could start with Peter Robinson's interview last week in which he spoke about his desire for a single unionist party.

This was followed on Monday when the Belfast Telegraph carried an interview with the Ulster Unionist MLA for Strangford David McNarry in which he revealed he had been having talks with the DUP about greater co-operation and maximising the unionist vote.

Mr McNarry later spoke to the BBC, but declined a broadcast interview.

He said he didn't know what all the fuss was about. But he made it clear that his talks were about improving his party's position and unionism.

The talks, he said, began with Sammy Wilson of the DUP after the last assembly election because of the message he and others heard consistently on the doorstep: "Why don't you two parties get together?".

Brands

Mr McNarry insisted his party was not heading for a merger.

"The two brands will maintain their separate integrities - I wouldn't talk to anybody about selling the UUP brand," he said.

"It's not for sale."

He revealed that the discussions had evolved to include the DUP leader, Peter Robinson, whom he no longer regarded as an obstacle to unionist unity.

And the article mentioned that the Ulster Unionist minister Danny Kennedy was attending pre-Executive meetings with DUP ministers.

But Mr McNarry was not forthcoming on some questions: Who attends these DUP-UUP discussions? Who sanctioned these meetings? How often do these meetings take place?

Mr McNarry's revelation of talks "deeply unsettled the horses," according to one insider.

Image caption Ulster Unionist David McNarry said his party was not heading for a merger

Indeed he appeared rather isolated - although there are sections of the party who like the idea of closer co-operation between the two parties.

Some regard the decline in UUP votes, particularly west of the Bann, as a sign of future catastrophe and point to the need to manage votes better with the DUP.

The McNarry revelations led to a special meeting of the Ulster Unionist assembly team on Tuesday as MLAs no doubt tabled the questions the BBC could not get answers to.

The discussion was heated at some points.

Some assembly members were upset to hear of this initiative in the media. Some were upset at the initiative also.

The Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott had the job of calming the waters. He had not spoken to the media ahead of this meeting.

I relied on what he had said last week in a statement responding to Mr Robinson's single unionist party idea.

Mr Elliott said he would look at proposals but suggested that maximising the unionist vote was served by giving unionists choice.

Mutual interest

He did subsequently speak briefly to the News Letter, insisting his party was not for sale adding "this has been blown out of all proportion".

This was an echo of Mr McNarry's remarks the day before.

Mr Elliott was quoted as saying he would address more fully the claims by Mr McNarry at a future date.

Mr Elliott has not spoken to the BBC.

But amid all this the BBC has learned that Mr Elliott did speak to his party about meeting the DUP leader about issues of mutual interest such as justice and the Review of Public Administration.

At the same time, the BBC has also been told that when Mr McNarry met the DUP leader, Mr Elliott was present.

One UUP source told the BBC these two issues should be not connected - that the McNarry initiative is separate from the DUP-UUP leader talks. One of my sources scoffed at this remark.

So what are we to make of all this?

Mr Elliott perhaps needs to hasten his clarification.

What exactly is his attitude to the McNarry initiative?

What exactly did he sanction?

What is his involvement?

Private meetings

Who else in the party knew about the initiative?

Who did Mr McNarry report back to?

What was he talking to Peter Robinson about? Would his meeting with Peter Robinson have come about without the McNarry initiative?

What was the context for meeting Mr Robinson?

How often did the talks take place? Who else was present?

The DUP has questions to answer too. The party is keeping its head down.

A DUP statement on Tuesday evening made no denials.

It simply said: "The DUP doesn't discuss the nature of any private meetings unless agreed by other participants. We will not be commenting further on this matter."

There has been no UUP statement so far.