The revelation that "Ulster Unionist and senior DUP politicians held secret talks in England over the weekend" is both surprising and unsettling. The fact that the talks were hosted by the Conservative Party is even more remarkable.
Even Peter Robinson – currently unable to function as First Minister – was nonetheless present.
The Tory hosts said the purpose of the meeting was to "promote greater political stability"; yet neither the SDLP nor Sinn Féin were apparently invited. The aim of the meeting was clearly not to 'promote greater political stability', but to promote greater unionist representation at Westminster after the upcoming election.
Almost certainly the meeting was called in order to facilitate some sort of pact between the DUP and the UUP/UCUNF. It has become increasingly clear that the Tory's macho promise to 'stand in every constituency' was made with Britain in mind, and not Northern Ireland. If the Tories do stand in all 18 Northern Irish constituencies, and the DUP stand as well (as sitting MPs in nine of them, they can hardly stand aside), then there is a good chance that nationalists will retain the two 'target' seats of South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Worse, though, from the unionist point of view, is that a split unionist vote could even allow nationalists to snatch up to two additional seats – Upper Bann and North Belfast – leaving them, if everything goes their way, with a majority of the Northern Irish Westminster seats!
Such a scenario is, of course unthinkable to unionists. The DUP has been playing hard-ball, insisting on its 'right' to stand in both South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as they polled a greater share of the vote in the 2007 Assembly elections in these constituencies than the UUP. The UUP, for its part, has been obliged to pay lip service to the Tory promise.
Behind the scenes and away from the rhetoric, though, the strategists must have noticed the problem. The Tories want all the seats they can get, and even an extra one or two in Northern Ireland would be welcome. To win the election without winning a single seat in Northern Ireland would be embarrassing, but to win the election and actually lose seats in Northern Ireland would represent a local humiliation. Worst of all would be to find that the new Parliament is hung, and that the extra few seats that Northern Ireland might have delivered would have made all the difference.
Hence the new-found realism of the Tories. Above all else, they want to win the upcoming election, and if making a pact with the devil is the way to do it, then that is what they'll do.
So expect the announcement in the next month or two, of an 'arrangement' – not a pact – between the DUP and UCUNF, in which UCUNF will climb down from their foolish promise to stand in every constituency, and in which the DUP will stand aside in several key constituencies – perhaps in both South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The quid pro quo for the DUP will be that UCUNF will not oppose them in constituencies that are sensitive for the DUP – North Belfast, perhaps even North Antrim.
This UCUNF climb-down will be briefly embarrassing for the UUP, but will not even be noticed in Britain.
When the 'arrangement' (or 'agreement', 'understanding', 'unspoken deal', or whatever it will be called) becomes public it will reinforce again the sense that the Conservative Party – and thus perhaps the future British government – is taking sides in Northern Ireland. Nobody is in any doubt whatsoever that the Tories are, and always have been, at heart pro-unionist, but the convention for a generation or more is that London governments do not overtly take sides within Northern Ireland. In office, in fact, the Tories have often angered their 'loyal' subjects more than Labour. It was, after all, a Tory government that signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement and stated that the UK has no 'selfish strategic interest in Northern Ireland'.
The attempt by the Tories to hoover up seats in Northern Ireland for their own selfish interests will not greatly concern many unionists – for them it would be a confluence of interests. For the DUP, though, any Tory/UUP success is likely to come at their expense, so they will be less thrilled. Right now, though, they are looking very vulnerable, both from the right (the TUV), the centre-right (UCUNF), and the religious right (who are a bit unhappy about Iris and money issues). The secret talks could represent the best chance the DUP currently have to avoid a wipe-out – or at least the loss of half their seats.
For nationalists, of course, the talks confirm what they have always suspected – that the Tories are simply unionists in another guise. Ideological arguments in favour of voting Tory will be negated by the obvious tribal bias that the Tories are now displaying. The long-term effect of this will probably be favourable for nationalism – the non-merger between the UUP and the Tories was already a warning that they were going to side with the unionist camp, but if an 'arrangement' with the DUP follows so soon afterwards it will ensure that few nationalists will consider voting Tory. Nationalists will see the three parties (UUP, DUP, Tories) as simply different flavours of unionism (not to mention the TUV). Nationalists will most probably remain with their existing parties, or will seek to get Fianna Fáil to set up more systematically in the north.
If they achieves nothing else, last weekend's talks have already burst the bubble of expectations that the Tory invasion of Northern Ireland raised. Promises to "bring into politics those who’ve been put off by the sectarian divisions of the past" will be seen as hollow if the Tories enter into any arrangement with the arch-sectarian DUP. A "'modern, inclusive, tolerant and compassionate centre-right force committed to social justice" that divvies up seats with the homophobic bigots of the DUP will be a laughing stock. And a party that claims that "we’re not interested in people’s community background or religion – only what they can offer as we seek to build a shared future for everybody", yet enters an electoral arrangement with a party that obstructs every expression of the cultural identity of almost half of the population, is simply not credible. The civic unionists of the UUP who were initially sceptical about the UCUNF non-merger will have been proven correct, and will be seriously disappointed if any deal with the DUP is made.