I remember bitter debates at Conservative Conference sin the 1990s when Northern Ireland Conservatives were effectively banned from organising in the province. Lawrence Kennedy put some powerful arguments forward and eventually persauded the party to relent. Although electoral success has not been exactly plentiful, circumstances are now ripe, I feel, for an initiative along the lines of the one outlined by David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey in the Telegraph this morning. It's one I hope people of all political persuasions both here and in Northern Ireland can welcome.
If this comes off, for the first time in ages, people in Northern Ireland will be able to take part in voting for a UK government, and see their representatives appointed as UK Ministers. It also reinforces the Conservatives as the Conservative & Unionist Party. I suspect the LibDems may now be encouraged to enter into a closer arrangement with the Alliance Party. Whether Labour will seek to emulate this with an agreement with the SDLP remains to be seen.
Slowly but surely Northern Ireland politics is emerging from their sectarian past. The Tory/UUP deal may even encourage a few Tory minded Catholics to transfer their allegiances. It may not happen overnight, but this move will be seen by many as not only David Cameron, but the UUP opening up a bigger tent.
And who knows, it may even encourage some DUP members who are tired of the antics of the likes of Iris Robinson to transfer their allegiances back to their more moderate colleagues in the UUP. I'm told that her recent remarks put some steel in the UUP, who do not wish to be associated with such extreme views. They also think that Northern Ireland politics was tarnished by the deal the DUP allegedly did with the Government over 42 days.
I am, however, left wondering what the UUP's only current MP thinks of all this. Lady Sylvia Hermon rarely votes with the Tories and mostly supports the government in the division lobby
Two final points. What a great thing it is that these talks have remained a secret for so long. They have been going on since last October and nobody found out. That's in no small part due to the efforts of Tory Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson. He was the instigator of the talks and has kept them going through some difficult times. Owen is much underestimated by many of his colleagues, but he proved in his last job as Shadow Fisheries Minister - and also now - that he is a tenacious and dedicated shadow spokesman who throws himself into whatever job he has. He can be justifably proud of today's achievement, and sounds it in this quote...
This is a great announcement. I believe that the creation of a new political force will attract a surge of support from people in every community who want to see Northern Ireland play its full part in the politics of the United Kingdom. I hope that the people of Northern Ireland will seize on this opportunity and work with us to see their interests better represented at every level of government.
In May 2007, in a Telegraph column, I suggested that David Trimble should be brought into the Shadow Cabinet.
One man with huge experience, personal charm and immense ability is David, now Lord, Trimble. He recently joined the Conservative benches in the Lords and would be a hugely impressive addition to the shadow cabinet. He is only 62, and is very keen to play an active part in politics on the UK mainland. He may not feel ready just yet for a frontbench role, but surely that moment will come before the election.
I now regard the move as almost inevitable. I am told he played a key role in making this announcement happen. If there is a reshuffle in September, I hope he will be given a key role.
PS I was delighted to get a call last night from BBC Radio Ulster, who asked if I would go on their breakfast show to talk about the talks between David Cameron and the UUP about an electoral alliance. They told me they would ring me to go on at 8.20am. Instead the call came at 7.32am when I was still in the land of nod. But a minute later I was broadcasting to the good people of Northern Ireland. I felt that I came across quite badly as my brain hadn't yet switched into top gear, but such is life.
UPDATE: More comment from Mick Fealty, Slugger O'Toole, O'Conall Street. The full statement by Sir Reg Empey and David Cameron is on the Northern Ireland Conservatives website HERE.