A Joke in Very Poor Taste
Daniel Finn · The Tories and the DUP
As Britain woke on Friday morning to discover that Theresa May had flushed her Commons majority down the drain, people found themselves having to learn about an unfamiliar party on which May (or her successor) would be relying to get anything done. The titles of the hastily commissioned primers – ‘So, Who Are The DUP?’; ‘Who are the Democratic Unionists and what do they want?’ – told their own story. The Democratic Unionist Party is Northern Ireland’s largest political force and was until recently the principal coalition partner in one of the UK’s devolved governments. But most of the time, what happens in Belfast or Derry is deemed irrelevant to political life on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Superficially, this year’s election campaign was an exception, with events in Northern Ireland discussed more widely than at any time since the Good Friday Agreement. But that was because the Conservatives thought they could damage Jeremy Corbyn by highlighting his relationship with Sinn Féin in the 1980s. The fact that Northern Ireland’s government had collapsed just a few months earlier, however, was barely mentioned; neither Corbyn nor May was asked to spell out in detail what they planned to do about it.
The Westminster arithmetic makes any speedy resolution of the Stormont crisis unlikely. Problems had been accumulating from the first day of the power-sharing arrangement back in 2007, as Ian Paisley, the DUP’s leader since its founding in 1971, had done little to prepare his supporters for a deal with their republican enemies. Paisley’s apparent bonhomie with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness infuriated many DUP activists, and it wasn’t long before Paisley’s deputy Peter Robinson had eased him into early retirement. Robinson was more intransigent than Paisley in his dealings with Sinn Féin, and Robinson’s successor Arlene Foster more intransigent still; the DUP used the requirement for cross-community consent in the Northern Ireland Assembly to block reforms that had already been agreed on in peace talks.
Brexit added another fault line: the DUP campaigned to leave the EU, while the other main parties all plumped for Remain, as did 56 per cent of voters in the region. The referendum exposed a light-minded attitude towards the Good Friday Agreement among Leave-supporting politicians in both London and Belfast: mixed messages about the likelihood of a ‘hard border’ in Ireland betrayed the fact that most Brexiteers hadn’t thought about the question at all before taking the plunge.
The text of the Good Friday Agreement explicitly referred to the Irish and British states as ‘partners in the European Union’, and tacitly assumed that questions of sovereignty would get hazier as European integration progressed; anyone born in Northern Ireland is entitled to an Irish passport, and the only sign of the border in recent years has been the text message from your mobile phone company when the train goes past Dundalk. The prospect of a harder-edged approach to national identity after Brexit seemed to delight the DUP leadership. The party is adamantly opposed to any special status for Northern Ireland when its departure from the EU is finalised – although with an eye to farming interests, it also wants to keep trade flowing across the border. Squaring that circle will be a key issue in the negotiations to come.
The Stormont government collapsed when Arlene Foster refused to take responsibility for mismanaging a renewable heating scheme that may end up costing Northern Ireland half a billion pounds, and Sinn Féin pulled the plug. A snap regional election at the start of this year saw the DUP come perilously close to being overtaken by Sinn Féin, but its performance in the Westminster poll last week was much more assured, adding two seats for a total of 10; Sinn Féin and an independent unionist accounted for the rest of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies.
The idea that Theresa May – or any Tory politician – can serve as an impartial mediator while relying on DUP votes at Westminster is a joke in very poor taste. A parliamentary alliance between the Tories and the DUP will reinforce an ideological convergence between the parties. ‘The immense contribution of the security forces during the Troubles,’ the Conservative manifesto said, ‘should never be forgotten. We will reject any attempts to rewrite history which seek to justify or legitimise terrorism.’
Official inquiries have exposed a long record of collusion between state forces and the loyalist paramilitaries who waged a ruthless war on nationalist civilians. The DUP wants to shut down all investigations that bring its fictitious narrative of the ‘Troubles’ into question. DUP leaders always saw the loyalist paramilitaries as allies in the struggle against Irish nationalism, refusing to take responsibility for their actions in public, but privately urging them to keep on killing when the IRA called a ceasefire. Now the party wants the IRA to be held exclusively responsible for the conflict, the state forces exalted, and the loyalists forgotten: anything else would be ‘legitimising terrorism’. The Tories agree (there was hysteria when Corbyn insisted on condemning loyalist bombings as well as IRA ones). And Michael Gove, now back in May's cabinet, in 2000 denounced the Good Friday Agreement as a 'moral stain', a 'capitulation to violence' and a 'denial of our national integrity'. He defended the comments last year.
The DUP may be out of step with Britain’s political mainstream in many respects, but as far as security policy is concerned, it marches in tight formation with some very powerful interests. For those who value civil liberties in both Britain and Northern Ireland, that will pose a grave problem, however long the current arrangement at Westminster lasts.