Budgen signals Unionist dissent among Tories over Ulster policy: Donald Macintyre examines the strength of feeling among Conservative backbench MPs sympathetic to maintaining the Union

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NICHOLAS BUDGEN'S trenchant call yesterday for the recall of Parliament is the second sharp sign in 24 hours of Unionist dissent inside the Tory party over John Major's handling of Northern Ireland.

His article in the Daily Telegraph, which followed one by Norman Lamont in the Sunday Telegraph, dealt magisterially with the current conventional wisdom that Tory MPs are no longer interested in an issue which at certain times in its history was almost its raison d'etre: 'It is true that many MPS - even members of the Conservative Party - are not very interested in Ulster,' he wrote. 'But then many Tory MPs are not very interested in politics generally.'

This goes to the heart of the question: how big is the support that the Unionist cause can currently mobilise in the parliamentary Tory party? One experienced backbencher, a veteran of the Maastricht rebellion and a strong Unionist, estimated yesterday that around 56 Tory MPs were opposed to the Government on Maastricht. Those who would do so on Northern Ireland, he judged to be - at present - 'very much less' - perhaps half at most. Given that Labour and the Liberal Democrats would on present showing strongly back the Government, Mr Major does not seem to have much to worry about. Since the early 1970s, when the close institutional links were severed by the abolition of Stormonttraditional Unionist sentiment - or at least a consuming interest in the issue - has gradually declined within the Tory party.

The Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985 caused deep unease within the Tory ranks. But only the late Ian Gow thought it a principle important enough to resign from the Government.

Could the current prominence of Ireland as an issue may now reverse that process? 'Friends of the Union', not an exclusively Tory body, include Mr Budgen, Sir George Gardiner, Winston Churchill, Sir Michael Grylls, Michael Morris, Barry Porter, Sir Terence Skeet, John Wilkinson, and Henry Bellingham among its patrons. At least six other MPs have perceptibly Unionist tendencies and interests: Mr Lamont, James Cran, Bill Walker, Alan Duncan, Ian Duncan-Smith and Andrew Hunter. 'The friends' would also include two others, Lord Cranborne and Jonathan Aitken, if they were not ministers.

Even this has never been a homogeneous - or exhaustive - group; the late John Biggs Davidson and Mr Gow disagreed over whether the Conservative Party should organise in Northern Ireland. It did so, with scant electoral success but in way that has helped to refuel rank-and-file interest among party activists. There are some 50 resolutions, almost all Unionist in tone, on the Tory conference agenda, and there will be a full debate on the issue.

So Unionism still has a base in the modern Tory party. At present, there is not much to dissent from. Even the most rancorous right winger can hardly protest at the IRA peace declaration, if it is not the product of some secret deal.

The danger for Mr Major could start if Dublin and London agree a constitutional document - for example, if the British Government were to recommend amendment of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act to reinforce the point that Northern Ireland should remain British only as long as a majority want it. Some Tories might argue that would breach Mr Major's promise that there would be no constitutional change without the consent of the Northern Ireland majority. Ministers would retort that the principle that Northern Ireland remained British until a majority wished otherwise would still remain sacrosanct.

At this point, however, step forward James Molyneaux. Mr Molyneaux's cautious and qualified support for Mr Major - asked last week about Mr Major's apparent shift to neutrality on the future of the Union he said it was a less dramatic change of policy than Baroness Thatcher's embrace for the Anglo-Irish agreeement - is crucial, for as long as it lasts. For most Tory MPs, if it is good enough for Mr Molyneaux, it is good enough for them.

While the Ulster Unionists forged close links with the Euro-rebels in the early stages of the Maastricht Bill, they moved behind the Government as Mr Major began to take Mr Molyneaux more into his confidence. All this could change: Mr Molyneaux could change his mind or be removed from the leadership. With less reason to fear Labour than before, the Ulster Unionists could yet mobilise angry Tories behind a rebellion. But the best bet remains that if the ceasefire holds, most mainstream Tory MPs will rally to the man who gambled much to pull it off.