Labour chiefs court disenchanted Hermon

THE most senior Labour Party member in Northern Ireland has appealed for North Down MP Lady Hermon to join Labour after it was confirmed that she will not run for the Conservatives and Unionists.

Last night the Ulster Unionists confirmed that Lady Hermon, who has repeatedly made clear her unhappiness at the UUP's alliance with the Tories, had not submitted an application by the 5pm deadline for nominations in North Down.

Writing in today's News Letter, Labour Northern Ireland secretary Boyd Black — a key figure behind the little-reported organisation of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland 12 months ago — appeals to the Labour-leaning Lady Hermon to join Gordon Brown's party.

Were the North Down MP to do so, she would be the first British Labour Party MP in Northern Ireland. It would also be an ironic twist, representing a step towards bringing to Northern Ireland the national politics which the Conservative-UUP project is about.

The local Labour Party claims it has gained a considerable number of new members since it overcame national opposition — because of its historic support for the SDLP — to organising in the Province.

Mr Black, a Queen's University academic, said that although the party is not ready to run candidates in the General Election, Lady Hermon could change that position.

"What if Lady Hermon, as a sitting MP, was to ask the party for their endorsement for her to run as an official Labour candidate?" he said. "How much better for her to express her opposition to the Tories as a fully-fledged Labour candidate, rather than as a non-political independent. This would really kick-start non-sectarian politics in Northern Ireland."

In a statement last night UUP leader Sir Reg Empey and chairman David Campbell confirmed the long-held suspicion that Lady Hermon's opposition to her party's decision to join with the Conservatives would mean she could not run for the new alliance.

The pair said: "We have today been advised by Lady Hermon, MP for North Down, that she will not be seeking nomination as a Conservative and Unionist candidate at the forthcoming Parliamentary election.

"We wish to record our regret at her decision, but also our sincere appreciation for her exemplary service to her constituents in North Down, our party and the wider community, since her election in 2001."

There was no immediate comment from Lady Hermon, who was brought into the UUP by former leader David Trimble in 1998 and first elected to Parliament in 2001.

However, there has been widespread speculation that she will run as an independent in the election, which is expected on May 6.

Lady Hermon's decision not to stand as a Conservative and Unionist is likely to clear the way for Conservative nominee Ian Parsley, who was the Alliance candidate in last June's Euro election, to stand in North Down as the UUP and Tory-backed candidate.

Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist candidates for 17 of the 18 Westminster constituencies have been confirmed.

The party has selected four female candidates in an attempt to shed its almost exclusively male image. The UUP nominees will now go up against Conservative nominees, of whom there are understood to be at least half a dozen, in a meeting of a joint committee.

However it is understood that the joint committee, which had originally been due to meet last weekend, will not meet ahead of a meeting of the UUP Executive, which will have the final say on candidate selection, tonight.

The DUP has selected several of its candidates but key seats such as North Antrim and East Belfast have not yet been decided.

It is understood that the North Antrim selection meeting, where it will become clear whether sitting MP and DUP founder Ian Paisley is to stand again, is to be held on March 8.