FORMER Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott last night said that senior UUP figures who discussed with the DUP a merger of both parties did so without his authority.
Last night the BBC’s Spotlight programme revealed that at the start of last year DUP and UUP members discussed merging the parties – and wanted to commission professional polling on how the public would view such a move.
Former UUP MP David Burnside, who was one of those involved, told the programme that the talks considered a “totally united unionist party”.
That, he said, would have involved “one party, one membership, one leadership, one manifesto, one parliamentary party at Westminster, one parliamentary party in the Executive, one party in Europe”.
However, last night Mr Elliott told the News Letter that he had not authorised the talks – which also involved the then UUP chairman and the DUP deputy leader, Nigel Dodds – and immediately put an end to the initiative once he was told of the proposal for joint polling.
The polling would have involved the DUP and UUP finding tens of thousands of pounds for professional research.
And another senior UUP party officer, who said that he had been in a car with Mr Elliott when he was told of the polling proposal, told the News Letter that Mr Elliott had been furious when told of the news and had told the person who had phoned him that it would not be happening.
The DUP participants in the talks - which were entirely separate to the negotiations which former UUP MLA David McNarry has claimed to have been engaged in with the DUP around that time - reported to Peter Robinson.
Although the initiative failed, the revelation of the talks casts fresh light on how seriously senior members of both parties have considered the possibility of a merger.
And news of what had been taking place behind closed doors also provides fresh insight into the shock decision of Mr Elliott to resign as leader last March blasting unnamed individuals who he said were responsible for “obstruction and hostility” during his 18-month tenure.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt - who has proposed vote transfers between his party and the DUP in next year’s European Parliament election and has spoken of more “unionist co-operation” - told the programme that he was unaware of the talks.
He said: “Nobody has been talking to the DUP about a merger with my authority.”
Mr Nesbitt added: “A merger will not happen on my watch. I am ruling out unionist unity, I am ruling out a single monolithic unionist party. I am ruling out the end of the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party and the creation of a single alternative. I am saying no.”
Asked about criticism of his own leadership, Mr Nesbitt also told the programme: “Maybe I am a struggling leader. But I am doing my best and I am doing what I think is right and I am not going to be put off.”
Mr Burnside told the programme that he and “a number of officials” from the UUP “believed it was worthwhile exploring the pluses and minuses of uniting unionism”.
Mr Dodds told the programme: “Whatever discussions we have had with others will be done on the basis of confidence and confidentiality where that is the basis on which they are held,” Mr Dodds told Spotlight. “And we will not be discussing it openly or publicly when that’s not the basis on which those talks were agreed.”
Professor Jon Tonge, an expert in British and Irish politics at the University of Liverpool, said that for the UUP a proposed merger would be “between a cat and a canary, in that they are simply going to be swallowed whole by the DUP.”
Last night Mr Elliott said that “at no stage during my leadership of the party did I authorise any member of the Ulster Unionist Party to hold discussions about merging the Ulster Unionist Party with the DUP or any other party.
“When I became leader of this party I clearly said that there would be no different structures for Ulster Unionists, we would have our own policies, our own brand and our own name. That commitment I fulfilled.
“At one stage I became aware that some members of the Ulster Unionist Party were having discussions about joint polling with another party; I had been unaware of that so when I did hear about it I said that I was not willing to proceed with it or even bring the proposal to my party officers. I did inform a small number of party colleagues of the matter and they agreed with my view.
“At no time was any finance requested or suggested from the Ulster Unionist Party for any such proposal and I never received any documents in relation to the proposal.”
This is the fourth time that claims of secret DUP-UUP meetings about unionist unity have emerged.
In January 2010, secret talks at Hatfield House brought together the DUP, UUP and Tories to discuss a single unionist party. Some at that meeting claim that the talks went so far as to discuss individual DUP MPs who would be sacrificed were there to be a single party.
Later it emerged that the previous month the Orange Order had convened unionist unity talks between the DUP and UUP party leaders at Schomberg House.
And last year David McNarry claimed that he had been authorised to discuss unionist unity with senior DUP figures