The Conservative Party today signalled that Ulster Unionists could secure a British Cabinet post in any future Tory government – though a final deal between the parties has yet to be announced.
Talks on forging a new political alliance are already well advanced and the discussions have sparked speculation that unionists could figure in Conservative plans after the next general election in the UK.
Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson today indicated that the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) could yet play an important role in any new administration.
“We would like to see fully paid-up members of parliament participating at all levels in Westminster,” said Mr Paterson.
“Operating in back-bench committees. Operating in the front-bench team. Becoming ministers if we became the government.
“Ultimately, why not, becoming cabinet ministers.
“Why should Northern Ireland be different? Why shouldn’t Northern Ireland have politicians from here playing a full part in our national politics.”
UUP party leader Reg Empey also told the BBC Northern Ireland 'Politics Show' of his expectation that an alliance with the Tories would bring Ulster Unionists to the heart of government in the UK.
“The general principle would be that if you are part of a wider whole then you participate at all levels ... that is the inevitable downstream consequence going forward,” said Sir Reg.
The Tories and the Ulster Unionists have been involved in talks throughout the summer, but have yet to announce that a final deal on closer cooperation has been agreed.
The UUP only has one member of parliament, Sylvia Hermon, who has largely stayed out of the public debate around the parties’ talks.
There is also speculation that the former Ulster Unionist leader, Lord Trimble, may be the most likely Northern Ireland figure to feature in Tory plans because he has already joined the Conservative Party ranks in the UK's House of Lords.
The speculation of a merger, or a looser alliance, between the two parties has led to claims that left-wing members of the UUP are cool on any tie-ins with the Tories.
Other unionists also harbour grudges over the history of Conservative party policy in the North, including Margaret Thatcher’s signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the Irish government in 1985.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has said its independence from central government will allow it to put the interests of Northern Ireland’s unionists ahead of any UK government policies.