All three main parties in Northern Ireland have sectarian bases. But the Ulster Unionists are measurably the most moderate of the three. Ian Paisley and his friends broke with the Ulster Unionists, because they were not sectarian enough, and formed the DUP. James Molyneaux would never form a pan-Protestant front with the leading apologist for the Protestant paramilitaries. John Hume, the SDLP leader, did the Catholic equivalent of that with the Hume-Adams Joint Declaration. So Mr Major has no need to blush for his new allies.
Nothing any British government can do will change for good or ill the sectarian base of Northern Ireland politics. What a prime minister can do, however, is arouse hopes and fears in the two communities. What arouses hope in one community arouses fear in the other. Both the hopes and the fears are dangerous, and a course that greatly arouses both is therefore exceedingly unwise.
Since 15 November 1985, Her Majesty's Government, first under Margaret Thatcher and then under John Major, had been pursuing such a course. They had encouraged the SDLP and Dublin to hope that they could make progress towards a united Ireland - with 'Joint Administration' a stage on the road - through the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Almost eight years of this treatment had reduced the Unionist community to a condition between despair and vengeful fury. Last year, for the first time since the beginning of the Provisional IRA's 'armed struggle' more than 22 years ago, the number of Catholics killed by Protestants was greater than the number of Protestants killed by Catholics. Northern Ireland was sinking into civil war, courtesy of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the spirit in which it has been implemented.
With his letter to Kevin McNamara, Mr Major changed course. In that letter, he reproved Mr McNamara for flirting with Joint Administration, and committed himself to 'unambiguous acknowledgement' that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. There seems to be an implicit admission there that the previous course had been ambiguous - and indeed it had. Ambiguity about the Union has been a central characteristic of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at least since January 1990, when the Irish Supreme Court ruled that 'the reintegration of the national territory', referred to in Article 3 of the Irish Constitution, is 'a constitutional imperative'. So the Irish partner in the agreement is bound to use it to undermine the Union.
The British partner, by continuing to operate the agreement, without any public questioning of the implications of that Supreme Court decision, appeared to offer silent acquiescence to the undermining of the Union.
In November 1987, after two years of the agreement, Sir Charles Carter said it had 'alienated the majority community, without ending the alienation of the minority'. Five and a half years' further experience of the agreement, and of growing violence under it, have produced nothing to invalidate that assessment.
The alliance of the Ulster Unionists with John Major does nothing to end the alienation of the minority, or to reduce IRA violence. But the new course, if it can be maintained, should significantly reduce the levels of the alienation of the majority, and so reduce support for the loyalist paramilitaries. That last effect would be to the benefit of the minority community, and to Northern Ireland as a whole. So overall, the effects of the new course are likely to be benign, offsetting some of the worst impact of the political sectarianism to which the province has been condemned by history.
But can it be sustained? I believe it can, for the duration of the present Parliament, which, largely as a result of the Conservative-Unionist alliance, seems likely to go its full term. Through that alliance Mr Major increased his parliamentary margin of safety by 50 per cent. With the enlarged margin, he can withstand buffet after buffet in by-elections and still hold on. And even if Mr Major is replaced as leader by the parliamentary party during the lifetime of the present Parliament, his successor will have nine strong incentives to stick to the course he has set. Kevin McNamara's maladroit flirtations with Joint Administration have greatly strengthened the parliamentary position of the Conservative government.
In the longer term, however, what is deeply disturbing is the apparent commitment of both opposition parties to the Irish nationalist programme: progress towards a united Ireland. Since the goal is unattainable, every attempt at progress towards it simply pushes the province towards the verge of civil war. An attempt to impose Joint Administration would reduce Northern Ireland to Bosnian anarchy in a few days. So I fear a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition would make an even worse mess of Northern Ireland than Margaret Thatcher did with her Anglo-Agreement (whose days now may well be numbered and so much the better: nor is there any need to regret the demise of the hopeless talks on the future of Northern Ireland).
As the alliance strengthens, there is one possibility that will be much in the minds of Mr Major and Mr Molyneaux, but which they will keep to themselves for the present. That is the effective re-creation of the Conservative and Unionist Party.
The old Conservative Party took the name 'Conservative and Unionist Party' in 1886 to accommodate the 'Liberal Unionists': defectors from the Liberal Party after Gladstone's conversion to Home Rule. Ulster Unionist representatives in Parliament took their seats as members of the Conservative and Unionist Party, from 1886 to 1972. They broke with the party in that last year because of the abolition of Stormont. The name of the party remains 'Conservative and Unionist', but the last two words have not been emphasised and are even thought of (quite unhistorically) as referring to the Union with Scotland.
So why not bring the Conservative and Unionist Party back to life by restoring the Whip to the Ulster Unionists? This would have advantages for both parties. For the Conservatives, it would mean nine safe seats in the next election, which might make the difference between victory and defeat. For Mr Major personally, as architect of the present alliance, the accession of Ulster representatives to the Conservative and Unionist Party would mean nine safe votes on his side in the event of a challenge to his leadership. For Mr Molyneaux and his friends it would mean the recovery of their influence with their former colleagues. But first, the Unionist community would need to be reassured about the Conservatives' intentions. The Conservatives, for their part, have strong incentives to supply that reassurance. Relations with Dublin are bound to become a bit strained. And they need to be, if disaster is not to be further courted in Northern Ireland.
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