THE first fault line in the new alliance between the Tories and the UUP has emerged.
Despite the fact that merger talks between the two parties are continuing, senior Ulster Unionist David McNarry demanded a public apology from the Conservatives for an "offensive" remark about the Orange Order which appeared on their website.
An entry posted by a senior local Tory Party member on the official website said the Orange Order was a "backward-facing, history-obsessed, parish pump society".
Mr McNarry said an apology was needed to close down an issue which could cause embarrassment and problems in the future.
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Conservatives said they had already made it clear the comment on the site was a personal posting, not the view of the party and they had had it removed.
But the remark had been on the site from March and Mr McNarry, also Orange Assistant Grand Master, said: "It was a slur on the members of the Orange Institution and the honourable thing for the Conservative Party to do would be to apologise to Orangemen, not just in Northern Ireland, but Scotland and England too, where the institution thrives and there are good relations with all political parties."
Given that part of the Conservatives' reason for talks with the UUP is that it wants to use the Province as a stepping stone towards a resurgence in Scotland – and the Orange Order's influence in Protestant areas there – the UUP MLA's apology call may have wider implications.
However, a Conservative spokesman reiterated the remark was someone's "personal view" and the party had total respect for the Orange Institution.
He added: "The Conservative Party has no issue with the Orange Order. It is a perfectly legal organisation and many of its members are engaged in charity and church work."
Mr McNarry insisted that, at the very least, the local Tory who made the comment should apologise. However, he is on holiday and could not be contacted by the News Letter yesterday.
What impact – if any – this will have on the UUP-Tory merger talks is unclear.
However, the DUP, which sparked the controversy earlier this week by highlighting the offensive Tory opinion piece, has said it was indicative of the fact that the partnership between the parties was doomed to fail.
DUP MLA Edwin Poots condemned the Tories and demanded to know if the UUP was now moving to a position of hostility towards the Orange Institution.
Ulster Unionist and Orangeman Tom Elliott said this was obviously not the case.
Mr Poots then produced an e-mail to a local Ulster Unionist Party member from the same Tory who posted the Orange Order remarks on the website, in which the Conservative further said: "Also, frankly, I'm bored with the 'holier-than-thou/Orange Order must never be criticised' stance taken by so many 'unionists' out there."
Mr Poots said this was the Tories making "clear their feelings regarding the Orange Institution and indeed Ulster/Protestant culture". He added: “Clearly Orangemen won’t be welcome in a merged UUP-Tory party.”
The Conservatives warned the DUP to back-off and stop trying to stir up trouble around the merger talks.
They said it was unbecoming of a party of government to be preoccupied with relentlessly picking holes in the business of their party and the UUP.
Relations between the Tory Party and Democratic Unionists have been tense since the DUP backed Gordon Brown in the House of Commons on the issue of 42-day detention for terrorist suspects and saved the Prime Minister from humiliation.
In the uproar in the chamber after that vote Iris Robinson incensed Conservatives by goading them with a nine-finger salute, inferring that the nine DUP MPs held sway in the House.