The Tory/DUP partnership could be a mixed bag for Northern Ireland
If you’ve lived in Belfast as long as I have and hold any list of principles left of a century old Calvinist preacher then you’ve probably been to as many protests as you’ve had hot dinners. And whilst Northern Ireland hosts enough protests to make it the provincial pass-time some huge majority of them will have been triggered by some policy, statement or action originating from the DUP. But why is it in Britain (and even the Republic of Ireland) that even the left-wing’s sworn enemies in the Conservatives and other parties have over the years shown increased tolerance, interest and concern for the rights and welfare of special interest groups yet Northern Ireland still struggles to close the gap in social progress? How is such a paleo-conservative group like the DUP permitted to roost so long in NI’s largest party spot? Because they have something most other parties can only dream of: adamant, fanatical support; in particular support for their foremost political objective.
Much of the DUP’s supporters vote for them with less concern for policy and far more concern for their guardianship of Northern Ireland’s status within the UK. The prospect of a united Ireland to these voters is a pseudo-apocalytpic notion.
So why is this concerning? Because it means they have license to act however they want. So long as the DUP are the reigning champions of this political ideal (and don’t over-aggravate Irish nationalists), they could run the country half way to oblivion before many of its voters might reconsider. They have a high level of immunity against public opinion. Keeping with the metaphor they even possess anti-bodies in a way. Their most loyal fan base can often interpret almost any criticism, however objectively balanced, as an attack inspired by Irish republicanism.
But they won the most seats in this election after all, so don’t they represent Northern Ireland, generally? Essentially yes but from a very simplistic view. The DUP got 36% of the vote and secured 10/18 of the region’s Westminster seats. They also got this in a First Past The Post election where Northern Ireland is used to a culture of broader representation through the Single Transferable Vote system for its autonomous Legislative Assembly, which the locals tend to be more concerned with. And let’s not forget the basic history: anyone who thinks a single party can effectively represent a notoriously divided society like Northern Ireland is not to be taken seriously.
But will the DUP represent Northern Ireland on more universal issues? It’s likely they’ll use their new leverage to acquire much-needed funds for the strapped NI public sector (on which the region heavily relies). But why then are there numerous suggestions of discussing the controversial Orange parades (a minority issue when one considers the declining numbers of the exclusive Orange Order). This is a local cultural issue, which is far better handled autonomously. How do we think the idea of the marginally dominant DUP using the big Westminster powers that be to throw weight in such one-sided manner will be taken by the nationalist community? A community who, until recently, were showing increasing signs of complacency and cooperation.
Are there bright sides to any of this? Well, it’s undeniable that Northern Ireland needs financial and strategic support for its infrastructure. The DUP are likely to push for a softer Brexit knowing that any changes to the soft border in Ireland would give nationalists a cause to rally round. Perhaps this sudden acute attention on the party may pressure its leadership and/or its press officers to crack down on the crackpot notions that spring up often and easily. One can hope but it would be ill advised to hold your breath.
But the down sides might yet outweigh them. The conservatives are in a weaker, more desperate position which the DUP will take advantage of in their deal. They stand not just as ‘kingmakers’ but also to be the tail that wags the whole dog. The now clean split down the region between DUP and Sinn Féin means the compromises and co-operation of the two communities are at risk. The intimate new relationship between the Tories (unpopular with nationalists) and the DUP frames Westminster’s government as one-sided in the complicated peace process, going against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement especially when the local Assembly has yet to be resurrected. The middle ground is dying, tensions are rising and without great care and sober thought we could be poising ourselves for nasty times ahead – the nature of which I dare not dwell on.