UCUNF office closes but 'pact continues'

THE Conservative-Ulster Unionist office has closed with the loss of its three employees - but the two parties insist their pact will continue.

The office at Weaver's Court in south Belfast was a hive of activity over the last 18 months as joint UUP-Conservative posters were designed, strategies discussed and interviews conducted by a string of senior Tories who visited.

But following the Conservative and Unionist alliance's failure to win a single seat in the general election the office has shut and its three full-time staff have not had their contracts renewed.

The lease on the newly-built office close to the city centre – which was also the Conservatives' headquarters in Northern Ireland – is believed to have several weeks left to run but when the News Letter called this week there was no sign of life, with only a small sign indicating that it was the Conservatives and Unionists' office.

One source said that while it was meant to be a joint office, the Conservatives have been paying the rent for the last 12 months because of UUP financial difficulties.

A senior UUP figure conceded that the Conservatives had paid the bulk of the rent but said he believed the UUP had been contributing to the office's cost.

Despite its loss of income by having no MPs, the UUP insists that it has a firm financial base and the party retains considerable property assets.

But Conservatives in Northern Ireland are understood to have received substantial donations from businesses – one believed to be in the region of 100,000 – to fight elections and there is disquiet among many local Tories who believe that the UUP's financial contributions to the joint arrangement should have been greater, given that all but two joint candidates were Ulster Unionists.

The Conservatives are undertaking reviews of staffing levels across the country and have slashed the number of employees at central office, with a similar review of its Northern Ireland operation expected to begin soon.

There is informed speculation that if the new UUP leader retains the party's link with the Conservative it could become a much more overtly Ulster Unionist entity.

However, under that plan any UUP MPs would vote with the Tories at Westminster, in much the same way as Germany's Christian Social Union of Bavaria is an independent party in Bavaria but always joins forces with the larger Christian Democrats in the Bundestag.

In a statement, the Ulster Unionists said: "Weaver's Court was used as campaign headquarters for both the European and Westminster elections when the Ulster Unionist Party and Conservative Party worked together fielding joint candidates.

"Given that we are five years away from another general election it was therefore appropriate to close the office at this time.

"While others will attempt to play politics with this it is no way a reflection of the ongoing working relationship between the Ulster Unionist Party and Conservative Party who both remain committed to bringing Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom mainstream through normal politics."