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By Sam McBride
News Letter political correspondent
Ahead of the Ulster Unionist Party conference, I interviewed UUP leader Sir Reg Empey about the state of the party, his own future and the Tory alliance.
But, as ever with these things, only so much could get onto the allocated page in today’s edition of the News Letter. At Bobball’s invitation, I’ve pulled out some of the interview which didn’t make it into the paper because of space.
Much of what Sir Reg had to say was a stout defence of the Conservative link. Those comments were made ahead of the open letter to Sir Reg released last night by Chris McGimpsey, Roy Garland, George Fleming and Newtownards Councillor Ronnie Ferguson, calling on him to ditch the Conservatives.
There is little prospect of that happening unless there is a massive uprising from among the roughly 3,000 Ulster Unionist members but it will definitely be one of the talking points at the conference. One of the interesting things Sir Reg said was that, although firmly aligned with the Tories, he would like to see Labour putting up candidates in Northern Ireland elections.
Of course until now, despite the efforts of many, including Mallusk-born former Labour minister Kate Hoey, Labour’s mainland base has long been hostile to fielding candidates in the Province. That is now gradually changing and the party is starting to seriously organise here under the leadership of Queen’s University lecturer Boyd Black.
When asked if the Tory link will be his legacy to the party, Sir Reg said: “I’m not looking at legacies; I’m not fussed on that sort of thing.
“If it works it works. At least, I think we are putting something up that has not been done and people will have an opportunity to participate in an election in a manner that they have never done before.
“We’re going to see more campaigning by national figures in Northern Ireland this year for the General Election than ever before; that’s for certain.”
That, Sir Reg argued, is crucial if frontbench MPs are to have a first-hand awareness of the Province rather than viewing it from afar as a baffling backwater.
“Every time a Prime Minister has come over here in the past it has almost been like he’s visiting the Wild West and the troublesome natives, trying to calm things down whereas what I hope we’ll see in the future is a Prime Minister who is regularly here because he has a stake here.
“While it may not be the case today, the point may come where a future Conservative Prime Minister may be dependent on here…that’s different to simply holding the balance of power as a group of independents.”
Sir Reg wants to see politics in the Province more focussed on the issues which consume national politicians – jobs, the economy, taxes – than the traditional unionist/nationalist fare served up by most debates in the Assembly.
“There’s a strong unionist message (from the new alliance) but there’s also a strong message that the Union offers a more pluralist solution to Northern Ireland’s problems, long-term, and if we can begin to move gradually towards normalisation then another generation coming up will find it natural to be talking about economics and education instead of orange and green.”
Asked if that would be helped by Labour fielding candidates in the Province, Sir Reg said: “I think it would. It would give a real edge to the debate and it would move debate away simply from the constitutional issue which we would regard as settled, albeit it will always be challenged, but I think it would be nice to see it and to be part of a national debate.”
For the News Letter’s interview with Sir Reg and coverage of the UUP Conference generally, log on here.