Most striking of all was Margaret Thatcher's facing down of ferocious criticism from Ulster Unionists to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: a move seemingly at odds with Thatcherite views of the virtues of the Westminster model, the inviolability of the Union and the indivisibilty of British Sovereignty. Every Unionist MP resigned their seat to fight protest by-elections. A quarter of a century on, this should surely be agreed to have been a far-sighted and necessary "betrayal" of the traditionally tight Tory-Unionist alliance. Indeed Thatcher's role in paving the way for the Major and Blair government's role in the peace processs is underrated, perhaps because that accomodationist move is at odds with her political persona.
I wrote about David Cameron's restoration of that Unionist alliance - with some ambivalence - when he spoke to the UUP back in December 2008, seeing in it an attempt to "float above history". That is not without its potential merits. The idea of "normalising" Ulster politics is an attractive one, if it were to challenge the tribalism of the province's politics. Yet David Cameron's move seems perhaps somewhat more likely to entrench it.
The most worrying aspect of that Ulster launch speech was Cameron's assertion that he had a "selfish and strategic interest" in the political alliance. (His published text had said simply "selfish interest", but his ad lib fully spelled out the intentional echo).
That soundbite was too clever by half. In so explicitly ditching the formula by which Peter Brooke and John Major had established the British government's claim to be an "honest broker" (with support for the Union founded on the principle of democratic consent), Cameron surely offered tacit confirmation that the politics of a Tory-Unionist merger could prove incompatible with the foundation of the bipartisan strategy of successive British governments in Northern Ireland.
The earlier post generated an interesting comment from a Fabian member who was at the UUP conference.
I am a NI Fabian who attended the UUP Conf. First of all, Cameron actually said "selfish and strategic interests" - not just "selfish" as suggested by his written speech. There was quite a stir when he said this as it was a clear statement of change in policy. He was unambiguously aligning the Tory Party with unionism. There was no movement away from the pattern of sectarianism. The Left has a responsibility here to challenge the orthodoxies of the rival nationalisms, but it cannot do so by abandoning the field of politics to those parties who feed on division.
Those tensions have now come to the fore in a broad range of angry reactions to reports of the Conservative Party's secret Unionist-only summit meeting at the Hatfield House estate of Lord Salisbury. (The choice of venue is resonant with history, both ancient and modern. The dominance of the Conservatives under a Salisbury premiership in the 1880s and 1890s was partly founded on their tragic opposition to Gladstone's support of Irish Home Rule, and the current Lord Cranborne was an opponent of Thatcher's Anglo-Irish agreement. Cranborne is also a fan of covert political manouvering, famously going behind William Hague's back to do a deal with Tony Blair on the Lords).
The Conservatives insist the Hatfield House meeting was simply an attempt to help the peace process back on track. That seems at odds with BBC political editor Nick Robinson reporting that some attendees insist they focused on the political strategy for Unionist unity, and electoral pacts between the Conservative/UUP alliance and the DUP.
So Cameron's paradoxical aspiration to use his Unionist alliance to forge a "non-sectarian" force in Northern Irish politics seems to be unravelling fast, with Sunday's Observer reporting the resignation of three Tory candidates in Ulster who had been attracted by that Cameron pitch yet believe the Unionist summit involved a dishonourable "sectarian carve-up".
Sources in the Northern Ireland Conservatives also confirmed that three prospective Westminster candidates, including former Top Gear producer Peter McCann, have resigned in protest over deepening Tory ties with the two main unionist parties. One source told the Observer that McCann and others had "wanted to vomit" when they were given details of talks between Paterson and senior Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists in south-west England last weekend. A subsequent meeting between Paterson and three potential Tory candidates, including McCann, PR expert Sheila Davidson and Deirdre Nelson, failed to quell their anger.
Their disappointment may have been inevitable. The Cameron alliance was, from the start, celebrated for two entirely contradictory reasons. Even as Cameron pitched a new politics transcending the old divisions, his new partner Sir Reg Empey of the UUP spoke of his going beyond 'mere party politics' in a constitutional statement whch had the effect of "restoring Unionism’s historic relationship with the Conservative Party".
The Old Unionism would now appear to have won the battle with the New.
The dangers for bipartisan British policy are demonstrated in the no less angry reactions of the nationalist SDLP and the centrist Alliance party
As Nick Robinson reports:
Within months he [Cameron] may have responsibility for hosting all party talks in Downing Street or in Northern Ireland. The secret talks at Hatfield House may have made that task a whole lot harder.