James Molyneaux told the Independent he was not holding the Government to ransom with a shopping list of demands - although he wants local democracy for Northern Ireland. However, he expected the Anglo-Irish Agreement to wither, and the Tory party presence in Ulster to collapse.
Commenting on the viability of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Mr Molyneaux compared it to the Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973, broken by a Protestant workers' strike after five months, forcing a return to direct rule from Westminster. Mr Molyneaux said Sunningdale was still around, 'somewhere in the United Nations, with a little layer of dust on it', and he suggested the Anglo-Irish Agreement had become just as meaningless with its 'mumbo- jumbo' communiques and 'poppycock' assurances on security.
As for the four-year Tory electoral challenge in Ulster, he said: 'Enthusiasm for that experiment has been very much on the wane. Nothing to do with the present crisis and so forth; just a realisation that it wasn't the wisest thing to do.' Tory candidates got 10.1 per cent of the vote in the 11 seats they contested in last year's election. He dismissed the Ulster Conservative argument that Tory MPs were more influential than Unionist MPs could be, suggesting that they were voting fodder at the beck and call of their whips.
Asked to explain why the Ulster Unionists had supported the Government in the Commons votes on Maastricht, the Prime Minister told MPs in Friday's confidence debate: 'Nothing was asked for, nothing was offered, and nothing was given.'
Mr Molyneaux said that while Tory revolts were made up of shifting alliances, the attraction to Mr Major of seeking the Ulster Unionists' support was that the Government knew where it stood with them.
'There's an example of that in the late 1970s when the Callaghan government had no majority at all,' he said. 'We got along reasonably well, and we protected the Labour government to some extent from the sabotage of their partners in the Lib-Lab pact.
'The arrangement was that if we were tipped off that the Liberals were getting restless and going to create trouble on a certain night, it wasn't too difficult to mount a rescue operation in a delicate way.' He hinted that if Mr Major's 18-strong majority was jeopardised by diehard Tory rebels - or by-election setbacks like that expected in Christchurch tomorrow - the Unionists could provide the back- up to keep the Government going.
'It's the kind of thing that will evolve,' he said. 'It will be the formula that we used at the end of the 1970s . . . . The Liberals would have gone and made demands and would have told the world what they were going to demand and come out and said, 'Well, we got six out of the seven things we demanded.'
'And then the Government would be held to ransom. They themselves would be in mortal danger, if the Government find for very good reasons that they couldn't keep the promises, and so it's a minefield, all that carry on, and it's not the way to play it.'
As for his relationship with the Prime Minister, Mr Molyneaux said: 'I don't think Major would mind my saying that I think we do understand each other in a way that we didn't have that kind of relationship with Thatcher in the second half of her term.'
The informal Labour-Unionist pact was created in March 1977, when the Labour government faced defeat on a Tory confidence motion. Lord Owen, then Foreign Secretary, said in his autobiography, Time to Declare, that Mr Callaghan promised Mr Molyneaux a review of the number of Ulster seats in the Commons. 'There was no formal agreement, but the understandings reached were sufficient for three Ulster Unionists to abstain.'
The number of Ulster seats was subsequently increased from 12 to 17. The pact lasted until Labour left office in 1979, and Lord Owen said: 'It was commented on much less than the formal Lib-Lab pact.' But he believed the relationship was more stable and at least as important.
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