Biggest test so far for UUP/Tory pact

THE electoral alliance between the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives is about to face its biggest test to date as the parties begin the process of choosing General Election candidates.

Following a strong Conservatives and Unionists performance in the European election, made simpler because candidate Jim Nicholson was a sitting MEP, some within the UUP concede that decisions over who stands in each of the 18 Westminster constituencies are likely to cause friction

The process is also the first time the Ulster Unionists' new selection process - radically overhauled under Sir Reg Empey's leadership - faces its first test.

The complex procedure, which now gives more influence to the party leadership in an attempt to field more consistent candidates across all 18 constituencies, is lengthy and, since the link with the Conservatives, now needs candidates to receive both parties' approval.

Yesterday a joint statement from UUP chairman David Campbell and the Conservatives' chairman in Northern Ireland, Tim Lewis, said that the process to select candidates for the Westminster election was under way.

It said that both parties expected the election to be "almost certainly in the Spring".

The Conservatives are understood to be pressing the UUP to speed the process along so that Conservative candidates — some of whom will have little public profile — have a chance to establish themselves.

One Ulster Unionist constituency association chairman said he believed that teething disagreements were "inevitable" between both parties as each vied to have their candidates selected in seats which are believed to be winnable.

Under the changes to the UUP candidate selection process, there is now a central candidates list, which can only be entered after individuals are assessed by the party.

UUP elections officer Richard Holmes insisted that the constituency associations still retained greatest influence in the process.

"The constituency at all stages has the main say in it because you can't go into a constituency and run a candidate that's imposed on them or tell them to go out and start working for someone they haven't agreed to," he told the News Letter.

"Over the next few months we will have candidates in place.

"Since the European election result, the political landscape has changed dramatically; that has an affect on it and we're not going to start imposing timescales that may limit our chances to have the maximum chance of winning."

The UUP has been sharply criticised in recent years for the stark absence of women from its Assembly team, although its sole MP is Lady Hermon, but Mr Holmes said that he was confident the new process would lead to more female candidates.

"The reason behind all these changes — Sir Reg was very adamant about it at the time — was that we have to have a slate of candidates who reflect modern Northern Ireland and which reflects male and female, various age groups and socio-economic backgrounds."

The process is also the first time the UUP's selection procedures, radically overhauled by leader Sir Reg Empey to give more control to the party leadership, are tested.

The Conservatives are keen to field more female and Catholic candidates than the UUP put forward at the last General Election in 2005 where a humiliating result saw it return to the Commons with only one MP while the DUP prospered with nine.

Yesterday a joint statement from UUP chairman David Campbell and the Conservatives' chairman in Northern Ireland, Tim Lewis, said that the process to select candidates for the Westminster election was under way.

It said that both parties expected the election to be "almost certainly in the spring".