By Stephen Bell
At the time of writing, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Arlene Foster, has stated that: ‘Discussions are going well with the government and we hope soon to be able to bring this work to a successful conclusion’. Providing the essential number of MPs to maintain a minority Tory government gives a degree influence which the DUP probably did not anticipate.
At first sight, it almost appears that the old alliance of the Conservative and Ulster Unionist Party of Northern Ireland has been resurrected. That combined party exercised complete control over Northern Ireland for decades after Ireland’s partition. Its record was a unique contribution to maintaining a sectarian form of government over the North. Gerrymandering and systematic discrimination were its mode of operation. The Conservative element was perfectly at ease with the junior partner’s Orange ascendancy, and they remained under the Tory party whip. This alliance was broken by the civil rights movement, and the struggle of republicans. Unionism fragmented, and the absolute loyalist dominance of the six counties can never be revived.
Today the DUP believes it has the wind in its sails. In the General Election its share of the vote increased by 10 per cent, adding two seats to win 10 of the 18 in the North. Yet approaching the situation in the six counties primarily from the perspective of relations at Westminster will certainly lead to it paying a price for embracing the Tories. As Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said, ‘There is a need for reflection. History shows that British governments betray unionists’. The Union itself has been disastrous for living standards, in contrast to the rise in prosperity in the Irish Republic.
The DUP has a major interest in two sets of negotiations outside of Westminster. These are the cross-party talks to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the complex of negotiations on Brexit which include the Irish government, strongly supported by the EU. These negotiations bear much more explicitly upon the future of the community the DUP seeks to represent, than the intensive care needed to sustain May’s divided party.
At present, the deadline of June 29th has been set for the parties to reach agreement on re-establishing the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. The DUP’s move towards the Tories makes this more difficult. The obvious risk of a deadlock, and the danger of an increase in loyalist paramilitary actions, led John Major to make a public statement of concern. The former Prime Minister reluctantly presided the early stages of the peace process. Major said, ‘A fundamental part of that process is that the UK government needs to be impartial between all the competing interests. The danger is, however much any government tried, they will not be seen to be impartial if they are locked into a parliamentary deal in Westminster with one of the Northern Ireland parties’.
Of course, no British government has ever been neutral in Ireland. Their commitment to the Union has led to internment, denial of civil rights, armed occupation and death squads. But all appearance of neutrality disappears in any agreement with the DUP. Sinn Féin has already called for an independent chair for the talks, rather than the Tory Minister for Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin enters these negotiations with a great deal of confidence. Its share of the vote in the General Election increased by five per cent, lifting its total of MPs from four to seven. This result was even better than its increase in the last Assembly election, earlier this year. The insistence of the DUP in treating Nationalists as second class citizens in its dealings in the Assembly led to the latter’s collapse. The DUP’s ‘influence’ with the Tory government will not protect it from the necessity to act differently towards Sinn Féin. Otherwise, Sinn Féin has made it clear that if nationalist aspirations and established agreements continue to be ignored then there will be no Assembly.
On the issue of Brexit, and its Irish dimension, the position is even more unfavourable to a stitch up with the Tories. The Irish Dail has carried a motion in support of ‘special status’ for the North inside the EU after Brexit. Although the Irish government has not acted upon this, the governing party, Fine Gael, has discovered a long buried republicanism. In the contest for the new leader, and new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, both he and his opponent, Simon Coveney, attempted to make the largest bid on Irish unity. Varadkar won, due to an electoral system giving greater weight to elected representatives than party members. All of this reflects a new pressure on all classes in Ireland – that Brexit would be economically destructive.
Varadkar pledged to rebuild Fine Gael as the ‘united Ireland party’. To this end he supports ‘special arrangements’ for the North, including, to remain in the single market, and the retention of Common Agricultural Programme and other benefits. John O’Dowd, Sinn Féin MLA, suggests that Varadkar is ‘committed on the need to prepare for Irish unity and support for special status for the North in the EU in all but name.’ The Irish government is in a very strong position. It has won the support of the EU for its position. The EU economy and the Irish economy are growing faster than the British economy. Quite simply, the Irish government is a position to offer the DUP a much better, and longer lasting, deal.
Supporting the Tory government does give the DUP a route to influence Brexit negotiations. But the best this is likely to mean is some improvement in government funding for the North, and some welfare spending adjustments. Both of these will be inhibited – firstly by the ‘Barnett formula’ on the funding of devolved government bodies, and secondly by the Tories continued insistence on austerity.
The DUP believes it will get a softer border, as a result of a softer Brexit. The border however is an intractable problem within Brexit. Nigel Dodds, DUP MP, has already stated that the DUP will oppose all attempts to give the North special status. But that is what the DUP is seeking by other means – allowing the North to have relations with the South which side-steps the fact that there will be two different trading and regulatory regimes, if the North leaves the Single Market and Customs Union.
There is a further expression of the short-sightedness of DUP policy. In the run up to the General Election the DUP was supported by illegal paramilitary organisations. Arlene Foster met with the outlawed Ulster Defence Association (UDA) chief, Jackie McDonald, within two days of the murder of a UDA member in a continuing lethal feud. According to reports, in her meeting with McDonald she did not call upon the UDA to disband. The UDA issued a statement in support of the DUP’s successful candidate in South Belfast, Emma Little-Pengelly. A number of loyalist paramilitaries issued a joint statement supporting the DUP; this included the notorious death squad, the Red Hand Commandos.
The DUP’s election campaign aimed to pull as much loyalist support as possible, regardless of any obligations under the peace process. In this it was successful, removing the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) from parliament, and seriously weakening the position of Lady Sylvia Hermon, independent unionist MP. But still the unionist vote was less than half the popular vote, achieving 49.3 per cent. This demonstrates that unionism is now a minority in the North, confirming the position in the earlier Assembly election.
The DUP’s refusal to challenge loyalist paramilitaries is a move away from the promotion of ‘parity of esteem’ between the communities under the Good Friday Agreement. It is of a piece with its attempts to sit out the scandals of recent months, such as Foster’s involvement with the failed RHI heating scheme, and the murky donation of over £400,000 to the DUP during the EU referendum. Its current policy is only to address the unionist community, with no pretence at overall leadership in the North.
Instead of dawdling behind the Tories, the DUP needs to address the prospect of a Labour government. Jeremy Corbyn has committed such a government to a programme of extensive public investment, and defence of welfare provision. As the North is the part of the UK which is most dependent upon the public sector then Corbyn is offering the Northern population as whole the best deal.
For its part, Labour must clarify its understanding of the Irish dimension of Brexit. The majority of the North voted to remain in the EU. For decades British governments have lectured republicans on the sanctity of the majority in the North. Theresa May has dismissed this majority, Labour must not. Labour should state that it will include ‘special status’ as a legitimate subject in negotiations, in effect an Irish derogation from Brexit.
In addition, the British government is a co-signatory with the Irish government to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).
Labour should champion a new promotion of the peace process. This would involve a break with the Tory manipulation of politics in the North for its own advantage and reverse the years of negative approach of a Tory government. Labour should insist that all outstanding commitments in the Good Friday and subsequent Agreements are implemented, such as a Bill of Rights, Irish Language Act and other promises such as a full independent inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. There should be no rolling back of equality.
Labour also needs stronger relations with the Irish government, and to actively support all the North/South and West/East bodies arising from the GFA.
In response to the deal between the DUP and Tories, Labour and the left must address the Irish parties with respect. The DUP has very rightest social policies, reflecting the influence of conservative strains in Christian theology and its protestant supremacist ideology. But the DUP represents a substantial community which has to be part of the difficult conversations if Irish society is to progress. Labour has to encourage the DUP to be a full participant in a variety of political dialogues. Otherwise this would be a retrograde step from the pioneering work of the late Ian Paisley.
Equally, it is pointless for socialists in Britain to attack Sinn Féin’s abstentionism. Their MPs won their mandate on the basis of not taking up their seats in a foreign parliament. To raise an argument that they should take up their seats to help Jeremy Corbyn is futile. The road to Irish national unity does not lie through Westminster. Sinn Féin MPs will take up their seats in Parliament the day after the Queen shouts ‘Up the Republic’. Instead, Labour must engage with Sinn Féin, and all other significant forces of Irish society, to stabilise and extend the peace process.