Divorce on grounds of history

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John Major's appeal to Protestants to keep calm was rich in historical irony, for he made it on the same spot where a former Conservative leader pledged support for Unionists in their defiance of a British government. Mr Major presented his vision of Northern Ireland's future in a conference centre at Balmoral in south Belfast.

It was on agricultural show grounds on the same site in 1912, at the height of the Home Rule crisis, that 70 Conservative MPs attended a vast rally of 100,000 Unionists in what one historian described as "no less than the wedding of Protestant Ulster with the Conservative and Unionist Party".

The angry Unionist reaction to yesterday's announcement was evidence enough that a divorce has since taken place.

At the 1912 rally, the Unionists' leader, Edward Carson warned the government that they would resist, if necessary by force, attempts to drive them out of the Empire. At his right hand stood the Conservative party leader, Bonar Law, a strong supporter of the Unionist cause.

He and Carson watched as the 100,000 men staged a march-past, then watched as the largest Union Jack ever seen, measuring 48 feet by 25 feet, was unfurled.

The contrast was stark with the modern conference centre in which Mr Major yesterday unfurled a vision of Northern Ireland's future within a distinctly Anglo-Irish context.