An Ulster Unionist peer is to switch allegiance to the Conservative party this week, writes Liam Clarke.
The departure of Lord Ballyedmond, Eddie Haughey, will be a blow to the beleaguered UUP, still smarting from the defection of Lord Trimble, its former leader, to the Tories in April.
Ballyedmond is one of the party's most generous donors,with a personal fortune estimated at £500m in this year's Sunday Times rich list. His main business interest is Norbrook Laboratories, a Newry-based manufacturer of pharmaceuticals.
Tory sources say Ballyedmond has had talks with Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader in the Lords, since just after Trimble joined them on April 17. "It was partly a case of leaving a decent interval," a source said.
Ballyedmond, who was on business in Nairobi, refused to confirm or deny the reports. "David Trimble has done a magnificent job in Northern Ireland and moved the peace process along. The unionist party did an excellent job at that time and I would say the job is now complete," Ballyedmond said.
"I have been a supporter of the Conservatives for a verylong time. In the past I made a substantial donation to them, and I think the country needs the Conservatives at the moment. Their policies are the right ones and I wish to support that."
The Ballyedmond donation to the Tories was made during the leadership of William Hague between 1997 and 2001. The peer, who owns Corby Castle in Cumbria, has also lent his helicopter to the Conservatives during election campaigns.
Sir Reg Empey, the Ulster Unionist leader, refused to comment on the development. He has previously described Trimble's decision to join the Tory party as "a smart move".
Ken Maginnis, a former Ulster Unionist MP, now sits in the Lords under the title Lord Drumglass. The former party treasurer said he had not been told of Ballyedmond's decision but wished him well. He hoped that the businessman would continue to support the UUP financially.
"Lord Ballyedmond has always been kind to me and I haven't a bad word to say about him," Drumglass said. "There is no reason that anybody who has an affinity with unionism as a party and an ideal would be any less generous just because they belong to another party."
Drumglass, whose own politics lean towards Labour, took part in a campaign to break official links between the UUP and the Tories in the early 1970s.
He took a philosophical view of Trimble's defection. "It was absolutely natural," he said. "He [HAS]15 or more years' political life ahead, if God spares him. There is nobody as redundant as a redundant leader so David had to find another outlet."
David Lidington, the Conservative spokesman on Northern Ireland, said: "I cannot comment on individuals. In general I would be delighted to see more Northern Ireland politicians joining the Conservative party and taking the whip in parliament."
Ballyedmond was previously linked to Fianna Fail, and was a taoiseach's nominee to Seanad Eireann from 1994 until shortly before joining the Lords in 2004.