Leading Article: Wild play with the Orange card

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AFTER Maastricht, some Tory right-wingers seem determined to make Ulster the next battleground for their party's civil war. With Parliament's sovereignty once more the rallying call, they hope that Euro-sceptics will regroup around fears for the union of Britain with Northern Ireland. Such a cynical ploy puts faction-fighting above the cause of peace. It is supported by a small, disaffected minority whose actions amount to little more than political vandalism.

Lord Tebbit, given his experience of the Brighton bombing, may be forgiven for challenging John Major's peace initiative. But only political expediency and personal animosity towards the Prime Minister seem to explain Norman Lamont's recent pandering to right-wing concern that IRA bombers may be granted an amnesty.

Mr Lamont has no track record of interest in Northern Ireland. Nor has Lord Tebbit traditionally been regarded as a friend of Unionists. He earned their enduring distrust after he reassured them that they could feel safe with the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Orange card has been played not out of concern for Ulster's Protestants but to rekindle Tory party conflict.

Those tempted to follow this example should be wary. The Maastricht rebels kept respectable, if somewhat eccentric, company; Ulster rebels could expect to find themselves in common cause with the loyalist paramilitaries - which is unlikely to endear them to their electorates.

Nor do these right-wingers strike a chord with the public in the same way as they did over Maastricht. Euro-scepticism reflects popular disdain for the Brussels bureaucracy. In contrast, most British people are tired of Northern Ireland and desperately want a settlement. They are likely be impatient with any parliamentary shenanigans by government rebels.

Lord Tebbit and Mr Lamont are almost certainly spitting in the wind over Northern Ireland, and can expect few to follow their lead. The broad church of Conservatism is content, at least for the moment, to follow Mr Major in his search for peace and a political settlement. MPs' passion for Ulster's politics continues to be characterised by empty benches in the Commons.

The Tory party has changed a great deal since the days before 1972 when Unionist MPs automatically took the Conservative whip. The Unionist cause within the party no longer has the intellectual leadership once offered by Ian Gow, Airey Neave and Enoch Powell. As one former Northern Ireland minister said: 'There are no 'No surrender' Unionists left in the Tory party.'

Nor can the Right fairly use the Northern Ireland issue to suggest that the Prime Minister is selling out Thatcherism. After all, it was Margaret Thatcher who signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. Disaffected right-wingers should set aside past grievances and give her successor a chance to build on that accord to achieve a comprehensive settlement.