The 2017 Westminster election and the Democratic Unionist Party

Posted by ap507 at Jun 15, 2017 04:29 PM |
Dr Stephen Hopkins discusses the aftermath of the recent General Election and the position of the DUP

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk

In the aftermath of the general election, there has been considerable consternation in Great Britain (GB) that Prime Minister Theresa May has sought to strike a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland, in order to furnish her with a working majority in the Commons. The DUP won ten of the eighteen Northern Ireland seats at Westminster (up from eight), and their votes in the Commons may well prove crucial for the Conservatives. The DUP is an ethno-nationalist party, rooted in the Protestant unionist community in Northern Ireland; founded by the Rev. Ian Paisley in 1971, 20 years after he had founded the Free Presbyterian church as a breakaway sect, many party members maintain a strong commitment to a fundamentalist religious philosophy, and social-moral views that have been characterised by some GB commentators as anachronistic and/or objectionable.

For the last two decades, since the 1998 peace agreement, Northern Ireland has enjoyed a period of relative stability, after a prolonged violent conflict which cost approximately 3,700 lives. However, the devolved power-sharing Executive in Belfast, dominated by the DUP and the Irish republican party, Sinn Féin (SF), has been suspended since January, and concerns have been expressed that a potential deal between the Conservatives and DUP will further damage the prospects for the inter-party negotiations that resumed this week (with a June 29 deadline), with a view to re-establishing devolved government. During the ‘Troubles’, both the public and the political class in GB acted as though the conflict had a lack of salience for wider British politics, society and culture. This reflected a combination of embarrassment, indifference and a desire to keep Northern Ireland ‘quarantined’, at arm’s length. After 2007, and the remarkable DUP-SF agreement to stabilise devolved government, Northern Ireland has, once again, to a large extent disappeared from view in GB. In 2016, there was almost no serious consideration given to the effect of a Brexit vote upon the fragile state of communal relations within Northern Ireland, or the problem of the land border with the Republic of Ireland in a post-EU future for the UK. This ‘reflexive forgetfulness’ of the GB public with regard to the unloved province of Northern Ireland may be unsurprising, but it is potentially destabilising nonetheless. This neglect, by no means benign, reflects a deep-rooted sense that Northern Ireland is, in Dervla Murphy’s phrase, a ‘place apart’.

This is the context for interpreting reaction to the current position at Westminster. Although unusual, it is by no means unprecedented. Both Irish nationalists and unionists have often played a significant role in UK government formation or maintenance, not least in the ‘Home rule’ period of the late 19th and early 20th century, but also in the 1974-79 Wilson/Callaghan administration, and in the Major government of 1992-97. Moreover, the Conservatives went further and agreed an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) for the Westminster 2010 contest, although neither side prospered from the arrangement. The point here is that there is nothing inherently illegitimate in the potential Conservative-DUP arrangement, unless one is prepared to argue that elected representatives (and, by implication, those citizens who vote for them) from this particular corner of the UK are somehow inferior or second-class. One difficulty for the Conservatives now, of course, is that this is precisely what then PM David Cameron implied in the run-up to the 2015 election, when he argued that a putative Labour-Scottish National Party (SNP) coalition or arrangement would not be legitimate in the eyes of many British (English) voters. This was a tactical triumph for Cameron, but turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for a PM who declared that the Union was ‘precious beyond words’. The fact that the DUP is a pro-Union party, and the SNP is not, does not invalidate the comparison.

At the time of writing, it remains to be seen exactly what kind of agreement will be struck between the Conservatives and the DUP. As well as enhanced financial support for the beleaguered Northern Irish economy, the DUP, perhaps paradoxically, will be seeking no interference from Westminster in the social policies (e.g. same-sex marriage and abortion rights) that mark the province as different from GB. However, some of the rhetoric which has argued that the deal might jeopardise the ‘fragile peace’ in Northern Ireland is, in my view, overstated. It is true that SF (and other parties like the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and Alliance) would question the impartiality of a ‘talks process’ chaired by a British Secretary of State in hock to the DUP. But Irish Republicans have never accepted that the UK government could be an honest broker in such a process, and Irish nationalists have always argued for an ‘independent’ chair. SF is also mindful that it may, at some stage in the future, be part of a government in Dublin, which would also be a co-guarantor of the Belfast Agreement. So long as the Conservative-DUP agreement does not include highly sensitive policies such as a more exclusive definition of ‘victimhood’ in the context of the Troubles (to exclude members of paramilitary groups), or the ending of potential judicial proceedings against former military and police personnel accused of crimes during the conflict, then it is possible that such an agreement would not necessarily impinge on the prospects for continuing peace, and even the successful restoration of the Executive. It remains to be seen whether any agreement will be published. Ultimately, the talks depend upon the political will of the parties in Northern Ireland, even if the position at Westminster is a complicating factor.        

 

Stephen Hopkins is Lecturer in Politics in the School of History, Politics and International Relations. His most recent books are, The Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain: Impacts, Engagements, Legacies and Memories (co-edited with Graham Dawson and Jo Dover, and published by Manchester University Press in 2016); and also The Politics of Memoir and the Northern Ireland Conflict (published in 2017 by Liverpool University Press).

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Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk