Ulster Unionists pour scorn on Sinn Fein talks: Notions that official party line has softened are dispelled. David McKittrick reports

THE Ulster Unionist Party, the electoral voice of a large majority of Northern Ireland Protestants, demonstrated at the weekend that it has no time whatever for the Hume-Adams talks process.

The initiative was treated with a mixture of dismissiveness and disdain at the party's annual conference in Craigavon, Co Armagh, this weekend, with its leader James Molyneaux attempting to dispel any impression that it had softened its line on the question of Sinn Fein's eventual participation in talks.

One Ulster Unionist MP, the Rev Martin Smyth, had appeared to suggest last week that Sinn Fein could be at the table following a cessation of violence. Mr Molyneaux, in his leader's address, made it clear that this idea was accompanied by a formidable battery of qualifications.

Sinn Fein could only be considered for access to the democratic process when the IRA had been extirpated, when there was a cessation of terrorism and when all arms and explosives had been surrendered. Sinn Fein would then have to go through a 'quarantine period' lasting at least five years, he added.

Although Mr Molyneaux did not rule out the possibility of meetings between his party and Irish government ministers, it was clear that the key relationship to develop was that with the Conservative Party.

The party has drawn satisfaction from the arrangement which Mr Molyneaux is said to have made with John Major in exchange for support in the Commons lobbies from the nine Ulster Unionist MPs. Mr Molyneaux was repeatedly complimented for his performance: 'He has brought us in from the cold,' one speaker said.

One sign of a new warmth in Unionist-Tory relations was a fringe meeting addressed by Alistair Cooke, the director of the Conservative Political Centre think- tank. He emphasised that he was appearing in a personal capacity, but his advocacy of closer co-operation between the parties and a renegotiation of the Anglo-Irish agreement endeared him to the meeting.

The feeling that this was a promising relationship, however, ran alongside a strong strain of dissatisfaction with the administration of Northern Ireland. There was a frequently voiced sense that Protestants were being officially discriminated against and Catholics favoured.

The Fair Employment Commission, which monitors religious discrimination, was described as 'pursuing a hidden agenda of positive discrimination against Protestants'. There was applause for a speaker who described it as 'blatantly bigoted and discriminatory' and called for its abolition. The conference unanimously called for a reassessment of its role.

It also unanimously rejected proposed educational reforms after speakers complained they contained favouritism towards the Catholic church and unfair treatment of Protestant churches. One declared: 'The losers are going to be the Protestant councillors, Protestant churches and the Protestant people.'

A debate on urban regeneration centred on allegations that Catholic areas were receiving more money than Protestant districts. A Belfast councillor said that of pounds 124m in government spending only pounds 44m had gone to Protestant areas, adding: 'It's discrimination of the worst kind.' Another councillor said: 'The years of whining and whingeing by nationalist politicians have indeed paid off.'

Veteran observers reflected that over the years the culture of complaints had moved from the nationalist to the Unionist tradition.