Northern Ireland’s politics were already complicated enough
Britain’s elections were called during negotiations to restore the regional government in Northern Ireland, created by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998. The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly (Northern Ireland’s government and parliament) were dissolved in January when Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, withdrew from the government. Sinn Fein was protesting over a political scandal engulfing its partner in government, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland. The elections put the negotiations on hold and, as often happens during election campaigns, heightened tensions between the quarreling parties. Now, the Conservative Party’s “confidence and supply” agreement with the DUP has dramatically changed Northern Ireland’s political landscape.
One of Sinn Fein’s core requirements for restoration of institutions was that Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister until January, stand down until the completion of an investigation into a failed government program costing £500 million (approximately $640 million) that happened under her watch. Foster has resolutely refused to step aside, even temporarily, with the full support of her party. The DUP’s increase in seats in Westminster this week and its new partnership with the Tory government strengthens her position.
The previous British government set a June 29 deadline for resolution of the standoff. If the parties cannot agree by then, Northern Ireland faces the re-imposition of direct rule from Westminster, and a more permanent suspension of the GFA institutions. The people of Northern Ireland will lose their locally accountable representatives and executive.
This may have consequences for peace in Northern Ireland
The partnership between the DUP and the Conservative (and Unionist) Party in the British government might in theory make Irish nationalists and republicans more willing to concede (Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, has hinted that he might be prepared to make concessions on Foster’s return). However, it is more plausibly going to harden the position of Irish nationalists and clarify the divisions between nationalists and unionists. The DUP never signed up for the GFA and has always been halfhearted about its institutions. It now can play in a new arena, by demanding and probably getting concessions from the British government that will probably make nationalists unhappy.
Even in a best-case situation, this will heighten distrust of the British government, which is frequently suspected of being a partisan actor. If the government depends on DUP support, it loses the pretense of neutrality as the sponsor of the multiparty negotiations and the enforcer of the GFA. This probably will leave nationalists in the north looking with more urgency to the Irish government to support their interests. It also strengthens Sinn Fein’s case for a border poll to unify Ireland.
If one of the conditions of DUP support for this minority government is, as reported, that the Conservatives will not allow a referendum on the border, the polarization of recent months will deepen. The formula for peace, nurtured by actors on all sides of the conflict for more than 25 years, risks unraveling. If, as some reports indicate, the DUP demands that loyalists be allowed to march in nationalist areas, there is a risk of major confrontations that could spiral into political breakdown.
Finally, the DUP is a far-right party whose views do not reflect that of the majority in Northern Ireland. The party opposes gay rights, abortion rights and Irish language rights, none of which are properly protected under Northern Ireland’s current legal regime. Many members of the Conservative Party have voiced sharp concerns about the DUP’s proposed social policies. If the DUP drives the British government agenda, in the absence of a functional Assembly in Northern Ireland to present and organize other perspectives, it will disempower the majority of Northern Irish citizens who would prefer laws more like those of the rest of Britain and the Republic of Ireland (which has marriage equality and Irish language protection, and is contemplating a referendum to loosen constitutional restrictions on abortion).
DUP support will have consequences for Brexit
The Conservative government’s reliance on the DUP will also have consequences for Brexit. Northern Ireland is the only part of Britain to share a land border with a European Union state, and Northern Ireland also voted to remain in the E.U. by 56 to 44 percent. The DUP was the only party in Northern Ireland to campaign for Brexit, and it seemed for a time that the unpopularity and economic threat of Brexit might cause the majority in Northern Ireland to reexamine attitudes toward remaining part of Britain. In particular, nationalists hoped they could persuade Unionists to support a united Ireland, if that allowed them to join the E.U. This would thereby trigger a border poll and allow the redrawing of constitutional boundaries.
However, the DUP, with its minority position on Brexit, will now shape the British negotiations: Whereas the nationalists were hoping for some kind of special status for Northern Ireland in the E.U., the DUP will seek an affirmation of the union and a soft border, complicating Prime Minister Theresa May’s preference for a hard border.
None of these considerations seem to be foremost in the minds of Conservatives, who, like other British politicians, tend to treat Northern Ireland as an anomalous region that they only pay attention to when they have to. However, basing a government on DUP support, and providing concessions to the DUP, may have far broader and more lasting consequences than Conservative leaders are reckoning on.
Kimberly Cowell-Meyers is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at American University.
Yvonne Galligan is a professor and former acting head of the school of history, anthropology, philosophy and politics at Queen’s University Belfast.