The news that the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists are to explore moves towards a joint party (ConservativeHome: The Conservative AND Unionist Party and Conservatives in Northern Ireland: A Historic Statement by David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey) has come as a surprise to me, which is a credit to the discrete negotiation skills of Owen Paterson and stands in complete contrast to the way attempts to form a new group in the European Parliament have been handled. But it's also a good move for not only both parties but the whole of the United Kingdom. For too long Northern Irish politics has been an isolated microcosm, with only half hearted efforts at organising by a handful of parties from both Britain and the Republic of Ireland, give or take a few small parties, and the result has been alienation and sometimes hatred, most recently when the DUP provided the majority of 42 days' detention or Iris Robinson MP's horrific comments about homosexuality.
A party that is a strong and credible contender at all levels of Northern Irish and UK politics, that can allow for full engagement with national and international politics, can only help to move political debate forward in the province. It also helps to anchor the Conservative Party in all nations of the United Kingdom, a contrast to Labour who've had to be dragged into allowing even membership by the courts and is determined to remain a Brits only party.
Will this lead to a sudden landslide in Northern Ireland at the next election, with seats turning blue all over? Well let's not get carried away - there's a lot still to do and hundreds of thousands of voters to engage with. But it's a good start with promising signs to come.