The Ulster Unionists’ sole member of the Westminster parliament failed to turn up to her party’s conference at the weekend, increasing speculation that Sylvia Hermon, the widow of RUC Chief John Hermon, will stand as an independent in the forthcoming general election.
Hermon is understood to be considering standing against a joint UUP-Conservative candidate in her North Down constituency. She has refused to disclose her intentions over the seat.
The North Down branch of the Conservative Party have already selected Ian Parsley, a defector from the Alliance Party, as its candidate.
Parsley polled well for the Alliance Party as a candidate in the recent European elections, although some commentators suggested the similarity of his name with that of former DUP leader Ian Paisley was a factor.
It now appears that his defection may well have been predicated on the likelihood of his selection as the joint UUP/Conservative candidate in the constituency.
The alliance between the UUP and the Conservatives, known as UCUNF (Unionists and Conservative United New Force) dominated the UUP conference at the weekend.
The North Down MP is known to be opposed to the UUP-Tory link-up, and has consistently voted with the Labour Party at Westminster.
There was further discord at the conference in Belfast’s Europa Hotel at the weekend, when some labour and trade union-minded Ulster Unionists, led by former Belfast councillor Chris McGimpsey, urged delegates to oppose the party’s fusion with the Conservatives.
McGimpsey, Fermanagh UUP councillor Raymond Ferguson and unionist historian Roy Garland said the Tory alliance would destroy the party’s support in unionist working class communities.
“I think the party is heading down a cul-de-sac and this will cause us difficulties in the future. Not all our voters are conservatives and this will have a knock-on effect in urban districts where we will lose support. It is rumoured the leadership will take action against us.
“This party grew out of dissent and accepted a ‘broad church’ and, if they are now behaving like the DUP, perhaps this is the new Tory influence on the party, that you are not allowed to have dissent,” McGimpsey said.
Earlier, shadow foreign secretary and former British Prime Minister William Hague received a standing ovation after he told the conference the Tories aimed to end “the semi-detached political status of Northern Ireland and bring you back into the mainstream of United Kingdom politics”.
The Tories are enjoying a clear lead in British opinion polls and are expected to return to power next summer after an absence of twelve years.
The Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey said a Conservative government would be good news for unionism. He said an administration led by Tory leader David Cameron would have nothing do with Gerry Adams’ plans for a united Ireland. The Sinn Fein president said last week the British government had a moral responsibility to bring about a United Ireland.
Empey said: “Picture the scene, when he and Sinn Fein sit down with a future British government to discuss his plans for Irish unity and, staring across the table, is a member of this party. I can think of no other action this party can take to better protect this part of the UK.”