The news today of a new deal between the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists is extremely welcome.
Whilst Tony Blair-style Northern Ireland clichés about "the hand of history" are probably best avoided, it certainly marks the beginning of a new chapter in Northern Ireland politics and is another step on the road to "normalising" politics in the province.
And it must not be underestimated how much credit is due to Owen Paterson, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, for bringing this deal about.
It was over a year ago that he quietly began putting feelers out to like-minded individuals in the UUP about seriously bringing the parties closer together again. He then met UUP leader Sir Reg Empey at the beginning of this year, after which a secret working group was established to discuss the matter further.
Amazingly, this close-knit group managed to keep their negotiations secret and out of the media until deciding to float their ideas in public in July.
Throughout the process Owen has been assiduously visiting Northern Ireland every week, often spending two days a week there during recesses. His commitment to what is often regarded as a minor shadow cabinet post has been total.
Praise is also due to David Cameron for being willing to stick his neck out and commit to the project and to Neil Johnston, the area chairman of the Northern Ireland Conservatives (and one-time Tory agent in Battersea) for his role in bringing about the agreement. And then there are others who have long cherished this development such as Jonathan Caine, for many years the Conservative Party’s guru on Northern Ireland affairs, who has worked behind the scenes for over a decade to bring the parties closer together.
They have all been driven in this project by the noble and
passionate desire to give the people of Northern Ireland the chance to
vote for and be represented by a new non-sectarian political force
which has UK-wide political clout.
With the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the United
Kingdom now settled, its people are long overdue the chance to
participate in the kind of politics with which the rest of us are
familiar: where their representatives are elected on a manifesto
dominated by their everyday concerns and who then play a full role in
the governance of the nation at Westminster.
I understand that over the coming months leading Conservative MPs
will be making more regular visits across the Irish Sea to show the
party’s commitment to the project. Iain Duncan Smith will be visiting
some of Belfast’s deprived estates next month and Dominic Grieve will
be over in January. David Cameron may even put in an appearance at the
Ulster Unionist conference in December as well.
Whilst there are still some issues to be cleared up, for example
over the precise wording of the banner under which candidates will
stand, this must not detract from what is a very exciting political
People who previously felt disenfranchised will now have the chance
to vote for MPs who will take the Conservative whip, have the full
rights and responsibilities of every other Conservative MP and be able
to aspire to sitting in a cabinet alongside colleagues from England,
Scotland and Wales.
So today we pay tribute to Owen and all of those who have worked to bring this about.