SIR Reg Empey has briefed party members on the state of the UUP-Tory pact talks – after he had moved quickly to reject media claims of an electoral deal with the TUV.
The Ulster Unionist leader quelled erroneous speculation that discussions between his party and Jim Allister's party yesterday had resulted in a voting "pact".
He explained it was, in fact, an agreed "strategy" for maximising the unionist vote in which they would both encourage their supporters to transfer votes to other unionist parties – and not necessarily each other.
Sir Reg contacted the News Letter to set the record straight that this is "definitely not a pact" after a surprise joint Empey-Allister statement was issued.
It revealed discussions at Stormont between the UUP and TUV yesterday.
After the meeting, party leaders Sir Reg Empey and Jim Allister took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement.
The statement said: "With the European election, as the next scheduled election, coming up in June (2009), we agreed on the priority of retaining two unionist representatives in Europe.
"This should be the overriding priority of all unionists in respect of this election. Such is only attainable by full utilisation of transfers between the unionist candidates. Thus, we agreed to recommend such a voting strategy to all unionist voters.”
Sir Reg added there will be a similar meeting with the DUP at a later stage.
A DUP spokesman observed the UUP-TUV talks and agreed: “It is a priority for the DUP that two unionists are returned next June at the EU poll, as has been the case in previous elections for Europe.”
But he also claimed the DUP was the only unionist party that could top the poll and one of the other two unionist parties would have to take one of the other two available seats.
Meanwhile, the UUP-Tory merger discussions edged a step further forward last night as Sir Reg briefed party members in the first of several Province-wide meetings.
The Ulster Unionist leader travelled to the Cohannon Inn, Dungannon where unionists from Fermanagh and South Tyrone, West Tyrone, Upper Bann, Newry and Armagh, Lagan Valley and South Down were invited to be updated on talks with the Conservatives.
Two more meetings are planned over the coming week for Ulster Unionists in other constituencies to attend.
An invitation from party chairman David Campbell said the meetings provided an opportunity to “understand the background and areas of discussion in the ongoing talks between the UUP and Conservative Party”.
Last night, Sir Reg told the News Letter: “It’s the first opportunity, since the announcement (of discussions) in the summer, to update individual members on how the talks came about and the sort of issues we have been looking at.
“These meetings are not decision-making meetings, but briefings.”
The second meeting is on Friday evening in the Lodge Hotel, Coleraine, for North Antrim, East Londonderry, Foyle, Mid-Ulster, East Antrim and South Antrim.
The third and final gathering is in the Stormont Hotel next Monday for the Belfast constituencies, Strangford and North Down.
UUP insiders said the gatherings would allow the party leader to test the water in terms of what members feel.
However, one commented: “I suspect the first two meetings will not be as well attended as the last one. Someone in South Antrim may not fancy travelling up to Coleraine on Friday night and may be as close to Belfast.
“I think that meeting is where Reg will really get a feeling of the strength of backing he has or does not have.”
It is understood discussions on the UUP-Tory Joint Working Group have progressed.
A full-scale merger is not being discussed and was never on the agenda. But talks are now focusing on just a very small number of sticking points.
See Liam Clarke, page 18