With wall-to-wall media coverage of leaving the EU and then a general election, if you live in England, Wales or Scotland you’d be forgiven for having no idea what’s been going on in Northern Ireland. In the days since the general election, people in the rest of the country who had no idea who the Democratic Unionist Party were until now have been outraged to discover the party’s views on homosexuality, abortion and climate change. While this outrage is justified it’s important not to let it overshadow how incredibly irresponsible it is of Theresa May to use the DUP to keep her party in power because of the effect this could have on the stability of Northern Ireland.
It’s been like this for three months. This crisis dates back to the Cash for Ash scandal involving current head of the DUP Arlene Foster. It’s a story of sleaze at the top of NI politics that would be difficult for any government to deal with. Add in the inherent sectarian tension in Northern Irish politics, plus heightened fears over a hard border post-Brexit, and it’s paralysing.
Sinn Fein pulled out of the executive in protest at Arlene Foster, triggering elections which eventually gave SF an increased vote share. They had six weeks after that point to form a government. SF demanded Foster step down as First Minister so an investigation could be carried out, but she refused.
The situation continued to get more tense.
The deadline for forming a government passed. At that point either another election had to be called, or the region would revert to Direct Rule. At this point Westminster woke up. Northern Ireland slipping back to Direct Rule months before Brexit negotiations was a situation they really wanted to avoid. So at the end of March James Brokenshire went over to NI to generally just ask people to try and get the two sides communicating. It didn’t work. He said there was no appetite for another election (true) and no appetite for Direct Rule (also true). So they just extended the deadline. This was at the end of March when the UK government had just triggered Article 50 and mainland news coverage was dominated by international posturing over Gibraltar. Should the media and UK government have been talking about the of the peace process in Northern Ireland instead? Probably.
The deadline for forming a government was put back yet further. Talks between SF & DUP were going nowhere. Things were tense and complicated. At that point probably the last thing they needed was a snap UK election, but that’s what they got. Suddenly Northern Ireland was facing yet another election while dealing with it’s own constitutional crisis. So the deadline was pushed back until after the UK election. The parties were now trying to negotiate while campaigning at the same time.
And so to the election results. Sinn Fein got 7 seats and the DUP got 10. The more moderate SDLP, UUP and Alliance didn’t win any seats, making Northern Ireland more polarised than ever.
During the election campaign there has been no discussion of Northern Ireland from the main parties or the mainland media. The only thing related to NI was in accusations from the rightwing papers about Corbyn’s “links” with the IRA. There was no discussion of the Stormont impasse, or even the border post-Brexit. Being part of the UK and having the only land border with an EU nation you’d think these issues would have been more prominent in the public debate.
So now with the start of Brexit negotiations looming there’s no Stormont government and mass confusion over the future status of the NI/Republic border.
Following three months of inaction, the DUP and Sinn Fein are at stalemate and the deadline after which direct rule could be imposed (29th June) looms again.
These problems will only be solved by careful, strategic leadership from Westminster, working with both parties to deescalate the situation. Theresa May trying to get the DUP to prop up a Conservative government may have destroyed any hope of that.
It’s been possible for the UK government to make progress on peace in Northern Ireland up until now because they remained neutral on NI politics. With the Conservatives relying on the DUP to remain in power, any pretence of neutrality is gone.
If the DUP enter into a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Conservatives, the option of direct rule may no longer be viable as the DUP will have sway over Westminster that Sinn Fein will certainly object to. It throws the balance of power totally off.
Arlene Foster, who didn’t resign despite allegations of corruption will hold more power over the UK government than, well probably anyone.
With the DUP now hitching itself to the UK government, it’s hard to see how James Brokenshire will have any legitimacy in attempting to keep the peace.
It’s hard to imagine what will happen in Northern Ireland if neither power-sharing or direct rule are viable options. Power-sharing relies on the UK government remaining neutral, and if one side is in bed with the UK government the whole thing is undermined.
It seems incredibly irresponsible of Theresa May to throw Northern Ireland into chaos, putting the fragile peace that so many have worked so hard over decades to achieve at risk just so she can stay in power for a few more years. Or possibly even only a few more months.
What do the UK government think is going to happen when the 29th June deadline passes without the two sides reaching an agreement? Do they have a plan? Or is the extent of the plan “keep the DUP onside, stay in power”. These are questions that urgently need to be answered. I can only hope that MPs will be asking exactly these questions when Parliament resumes on Tuesday.
This article was loosley based on a series of tweets by Jack Bernhardt
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