David Cameron's visit to the UUP conference on Saturday is said to represent the consummation of the agreement between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists.
The Conservative leader has said that his visit to Belfast is proof of his commitment to the “new political force” which he hopes will transform politics here, while Sir Reg Empey has welcomed the visit as a “very clear signal that the relationship between our parties is improving”.
This optimistic rhetoric is all very well, but there are many people here who still wonder what it all means.
Ever since the 1970s the two parties have danced around the subject of their relationship, with the Conservatives making most of the running — even Edward Heath tried to woo Unionists during the short 1974 Parliament causing Harold Wilson to brand the Ulster Unionists ‘extremists'.
The latest developments, however, mark the most serious |attempt to revive their relationship since Margaret Thatcher was Leader of the Opposition in the late 1970s.
The advent of Mrs Thatcher as Party leader brought new hope for those who sought to see the UUP and the Tories renew their historical relationship, not because she was personally enthusiastic about any deal — she was always very cautious about such matters — but because many of her supporters were staunchly unionist. By appointing Airey Neave — who had run her leadership campaign — to the Northern Ireland brief, Mrs Thatcher gave a signal that Northern Ireland would assume a higher priority and that she would be prepared to question Heath's agenda. John Biggs-Davison, a Catholic who was one of the most vocal British advocates of the Union, was Neave's number two. It was Biggs-Davison who wrote an article for The Spectator in May 1976 which questioned ‘bi-partisanship' towards Northern Ireland and claimed that “the Conservative and Unionist Party needs to re-build the political base which collapsed when the Mother of Parliaments strangled her daughter at Stormont and Unionism splintered in sour recrimination”.
It was also around this time that the Conservative Party began working with the Ulster Unionists on a form of devolution which would see ‘regional councils' created in Ulster as an alternative to the full Sunningdale package. As relations between the two parties improved, a number of |senior Tories made visits to the UUP in Belfast and spoke enigmatically of their desire to work with Unionists in the future. This culminated in a visit by Margaret Thatcher to address the Ulster Unionist Council in June 1978 when she confirmed her commitment to the ‘regional councils' and to the Union itself.
In addition to the Unionist supporters within the Tory Parliamentary Party, there was also a strong pro-Unionist stance taken by members of the ‘right-wing' British press. In the 1970s and 1980s, this tradition was best represented by the blind Daily Telegraph leader-writer, TE Utley, who had stood as the Official Unionist candidate against Ian Paisley in 1974. He, too, was close to Mrs Thatcher and tried to persuade her to adopt a more pro-Unionist policy.
In the event, of course, the |advent of ‘Thatcherism' did not, as was the case in most other policy areas, mark a significant shift away from Heathite attitudes |towards Northern Ireland. Although she had strong Unionist instincts, Mrs Thatcher was not sufficiently interested in Northern Ireland policy to challenge the prevailing opinion within the party. Airey Neave was a famously mercurial figure and even had he lived, it is uncertain what would have become of the relationship between Tories and the UUP: it is possible that Neave would have outsmarted the Unionists, winning their support while giving away little in return.
After his death, those whom Mrs Thatcher tasked to deal with Northern Ireland came from the pragmatic wing of the Party and generally sought, perhaps wisely, to pursue a more even-handed approach.
(A veteran of the Thatcher years was recently heard to say that he would have resigned his membership of the Tory Party if the alliance with the UUP had been proposed as recently as five years ago.)
This pragmatic wing of the party continued to hold sway over Conservative policy during the Major years. In spite of his reliance on the support of Ulster Unionist MPs in the Commons, Major's personal commitment to the ‘peace process' meant that he was reluctant to give way to the Unionist corps within his Cabinet. Major was the first Prime Minister to campaign actively for the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland in the 1992 General Election, insofar as he flirted with Unionist opinion. He merely gave credence to the idea that the Conservatives were only interested in the Ulster Unionists when they were looking for votes.
Although he has been accused of opportunism, David Cameron's decision to bind the Tories to the Ulster Unionists comes at a time when the UUP do not, for the meantime at least, have any real influence at Westminster.
The UUP's caution about the deal is understandable, but they must recognise that Mr Cameron's actions represent a controversial over-turning of the pragmatic and disinterested attitude that has long characterised Tory thinking towards Northern Ireland.
Although Mr Cameron is unlikely to agree with the position taken by many Ulster Unionists — including Sir Reg Empey — that the Conservative Party has made “many mistakes” in Northern Ireland in the past, he has certainly give a powerful boost to the staunchly pro-Union tradition within the Conservative Party.
David Shiels is a PhD student in history at Peterhouse, Cambridge