The key adviser to every Tory secretary of state since 1991 until his dismissal a fortnight ago has said that the Northern Ireland Office has failed to promote the benefits of the Union - and needs to do so.
Lord Caine, who as Jonathan Caine first started working for secretary of state Peter Brooke in 1991 but was not re-appointed by new Secretary of State Julian Smith a fortnight ago, addressed Attorney General John Larkin’s summer school on Wednesday, delivering a robust defence of the Union.
Lord Caine, who until a fortnight ago was one of the most senior figures in the NIO, said that the department has “for whatever reason” never seen it as its role to promote the benefits of the Union and “that has to change”.
The Yorkshire-born Conservative, whose ancestors came from Mayo, said that he was an “unashamed and unapologetic supporter of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and the case for Northern Ireland remaining within the Union was “overwhelming”.
He said: “My sincerely held belief is that the best future for Northern Ireland is, and will always be, as part of a strong and outward looking United Kingdom.
“This certainly isn’t based on some kind of misty eyed or romantic nostalgia for past glories...and it certainly has nothing whatever to do with religion … or a particular view of the Eucharist.
“Rather, my belief in the Union has always been based more around what I hope we can achieve together in the future as one nation; that the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom are genuinely stronger and better together...it’s a unionism based on respect, tolerance and inclusivity.”
Although Northern Ireland benefits financially from the Treasury, he said that the Union was not a “one-way street” and “Northern Ireland adds to the richness, character and diversity of the United Kingdom without which I believe the whole country would be poorer”.
However, Lord Caine said that he was someone whose experience led him to “completely understand and respect the fact that a significant proportion of the population here does not share that view and that they aspire - quite legitimately - to the establishment of a sovereign united Ireland”.
He added: “As the person who has without question spent more time in meetings with Sinn Féin than any other Conservative in British political history how could I not be aware of such views?”
Quoting the 1998 Belfast Agreement, Lord Caine said that it provided for Northern Ireland to either remain part of the Union or to join the rest of the island of Ireland in a united Ireland.
“There is, to borrow a phrase, no third way … such as joint authority between London and Dublin which is occasionally trotted out as a solution.
“The Agreement is clear. Northern Ireland is not a hybrid state. It is either wholly within the United Kingdom or wholly within a united Ireland … as I once had to point out quite forcefully to Mr Barnier.”
The peer said he believed that a border poll today would produce “a comfortable majority for the Union” but that such a referendum in the foreseeable future would “be just about the most divisive and destabilising thing that could be done here - and a distraction when the focus really needs to be about restoring the Belfast Agreement institutions and making the 1998 political dispensation work”.
Lord Caine said that while he did not believe that the Union was in “any immediate peril … it is certainly the case that today it is coming under increased and sustained pressure”, through a combination of “Brexit, no Stormont and shifting demographics”.
While a united Ireland is not inevitable, he said, “there are clear warning signs” that can’t be ignored.
He said that he hoped the looming 2021 centenary of Northern Ireland’s creation would cause unionists to consider “how to ensure there will be a second centenary”.
Ex-DUP adviser Richard Bullick said “unionists can’t wait a generation to make arguments for the Union that work beyond our base”.