Belfast Telegraph

Twelfth marches were alien to me, admits former PM Cameron

David Cameron as a young man
David Cameron as a young man

By Mairead Holland

David Cameron has recalled his first impressions of a Twelfth of July Orange Order march as "fascinating" but "strange".

A young Mr Cameron was a researcher for the Conservative Party when he made a trip to Northern Ireland in 1991 to learn more about unionism.

And he admitted that he found the "traditions" and "fervour" of the marchers "alien to me and the UK I knew".

Outlining his "earliest experience" of Northern Ireland politics, he recalled contacting a journalist friend, the BBC's George Eykyn, who covered the Troubles at the time.

"'I work for the Conservative and Unionist Party," I told him, 'but I don't know much about unionists,'" Mr Cameron recalled.

The journalist invited him to Belfast to watch the traditional Twelfth parades.

Mr Cameron added: "I lumbered around after him carrying the tripod as he filmed his package. It was fascinating: the bowler hats and bright orange sashes, the brass bands and the banners. It was also strange.

"These people were pledging deep allegiance to a country we shared, yet their traditions and their fervour seemed alien to me and to the UK I knew."

He added: "While the Conservatives' partnership with the Ulster Unionists had effectively dissolved in the 1970s, Conservative candidates were still able to stand in elections in Northern Ireland.

"But they were held back by lack of local organisation, a sense that they were somehow English imports, and by a fear among unionist voters that a Conservative vote would split the pro-Union vote.

"That left the Northern Irish political system cut off from the UK mainstream. People in Northern Ireland could get to the top of business, the Armed Forces or public services in the United Kingdom, but not national politics."

Once the Good Friday Agreement was in place, Mr Cameron said he saw a chance to merge the Conservatives with the old Ulster Unionist Party to form a "new centre-right, non-sectarian political movement".

At the 2008 UUP conference, he announced his plan to reunite under the banner 'Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force'.

"When I said that 'I will never be neutral when it comes to expressing my support for the union', the room erupted in loud applause," he wrote.

There was some initial success in the 2009 European Parliament elections, with Jim Nicholson - "a big, burly guy, as happy being labelled Conservative as unionist" - being elected.

However, added Mr Cameron, the new party was not to be. "The UUP was fixated on getting more money from CCHQ coffers, and its only MP, left-leaning Sylvia Hermon, quit the party entirely," he said.

In the 2010 general election, the Conservatives won over 15% of the vote in Northern Ireland, but no New Force MPs were elected.

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