Lord Trimble has quit the Ulster Unionists and will this morning join the Conservative Party.
He is expected to be unveiled as a Tory member of the House of Lords during a Press conference with David Cameron, at Westminster this morning.
The ex-Upper Bann MP has often been linked with the Conservatives and has never made a secret of his close ties to that party.
But the move emerged out-of-the-blue last night.
Lord Trimble said he was taking on a new challenge, as his “life’s work in Northern Ireland” was complete.
But, he added, he would use his position to increase the influence of the Province at the heart of British politics, in London – amid speculation there could be a place for the peer in the shadow cabinet.
And he also indicated his ambition to build stronger bridges between Ulster and the mainland, politically.
Ulster Unionist sources said Lord Trimble’s jump to the Tories was “completely amicable”.
“It’s in no way a nasty divorce, in fact it is being seen as hugely positive for the party and unionism in general that we will have a friend, potentially on the frontbenches, and maybe eventually in or close to the Government.”
Lord Trimble’s wife Daphne also remains an active member of the UUP.
And UUP leader Sir Reg Empey offered warm wishes and a tribute to his ex-leader.
Some unionists – whom the peer referred to in a statement as his “bitter enemies” – may be less sorry to see him go.
The new Tory peer said: “Political developments here in Northern Ireland are bringing about the final stages of the full implementation of the Belfast Agreement we made at Stormont on Good Friday 1998.
“That Agreement settles the constitutional issues that have dominated the whole of my political life in Northern Ireland, and settled them, moreover, on a basis entirely satisfactory to unionists, and clearly, equally satisfactory to other sections of the community.
“The implementation of the Agreement is now being underwritten by those who were its, and my, bitterest enemies. This does not, however, detract in any way from my pleasure at the prospect.
“I decided not to seek a new term in the Assembly. I did so in part because I felt that having successfully accomplished my life’s work in Northern Ireland, it was time to move on. I have always been interested in and wanted to be more involved in national politics. The House of Lords provides an excellent vantage point from which to observe, but I want to go further than mere observation.
“Consequently I have decided to join the Conservatives.”
Lord Trimble said he was looking forward to working with “a resurgent, revitalised” Tory party.
Devolution is welcome, he said, but “the major issues of politics, taxation, expenditure, the broad thrust of public policy, defence and foreign affairs will be decided at Westminster”.
He explained: “I know from my experience in the Commons that a handful of opposition backbenchers rarely have enough influence. My move today will not change that. But my move draws attention to my view that the people of Northern Ireland will need to have more influence and can only really do so if they are more fully involved in the national politics of the United Kingdom.”
Lord Trimble concluded: “I will no longer be campaigning in Northern Ireland for Ulster Unionists, but, having got through the Assembly election in good shape, I am confident for their future. I want to thank all those in Ulster Unionism for their help and friendship over the years, to assure them that I will continue to be committed to Ulster’s place within the Union and that I will never campaign against them.”
UUP leader Sir Reg Empey said: “David’s long-standing interest in Conservative and national politics was no secret.
“Through his vision and commitment, David, along with others, helped to transform politics here in Northern Ireland. He now brings these qualities to the national stage, and I wish him well in whatever role he takes within national political life.
“We look forward to continuing to work with him in the interests of a peaceful, stable Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.”