DUP 'has ditched any chance of unionist unity'

ONE day after insults have been exchanged between unionist representatives is not a good time to talk about unionist unity, the leader of the Ulster Unionists has said.

Sir Reg Empey made the comment after DUP leader Peter Robinson renewed his calls for unionists to work together ahead of the General Election.

Mr Robinson insisted the DUP and UUP has to join forces to recapture Westminster seats currently held by nationalists or republicans, such as South Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

But UUP leader Sir Reg Empey would not be pressed on the DUP's call for unity.

"I think a day after some of the abuse that has been thrown around is not a good day to make comments on it (unionist unity]," said Sir Reg.

Earlier, UUP MLA David McNarry said the DUP had ditched the chance for greater cooperation with his party by supporting Sinn Fein's demand for the immediate transfer of law and order functions.

He said the DUP's decision to sign up to the Hillsborough Agreement on justice devolution has effectively ended that possibility.

"Clearly the DUP have consummated their political marriage to Sinn Fein and in doing so ditched the prospect of unionist unity," he said.

"But at what price? Freezing out fellow unionists, overloading the already malfunctioning Executive and turning it into a dysfunctional liability."

The Ulster Unionists were the only MLAs to oppose the Hillsborough deal at Tuesday's crunch vote in the Assembly.

While they support transfer of justice powers in principle, they claim the Stormont Executive has not proved it can cope with the responsibility.

But they stood firm on Tuesday - a move that drew stinging rebukes from all sides of the chamber, with Mr Robinson particularly vociferous in his condemnation.

The DUP leader, however, struck a different tone yesterday as he noted that May 6 is the likely election date and "the countdown is on to achieve a unified approach".

"Only 41 days remain to give unionists what they clearly want - agreed candidates in constituencies where a unionist can retake a seat from Sinn Fein or the SDLP," he said.

"Working on the assumption that the General Election will be held on the 6th of May, as seems to be the general consensus, nominations will close in 41 days."

The First Minister said a recent newspaper poll found that most unionists wanted a single candidate in the tightly-contested constituencies.

"With a hung Parliament an increasing possibility, the number of unionists returned to Westminster will be absolutely crucial in securing the best possible deal for the people of Northern Ireland," he added.

"A hung Parliament could offer unionists a once in a lifetime opportunity to make key strategic gains.

"The DUP stands ready and willing to agree candidates in key constituencies both for Westminster and future Assembly and local government elections. My door is always open. The clock is ticking - 41 days and counting."