Hard-line unionist politics and a resurgent Sinn Fein are butting heads in Belfast. But with the DUP as kingmaker in Westminster, things could get really ugly.
- By Simon JonesSimon Jones is a journalist based in Glasgow who reports from the Middle East, former Soviet Union, and Britain.
Britain woke up this morning to a stunning election result: Theresa May’s Conservative Party, which had started the campaign with a double-digit lead, failed to win a majority government, and now requires the support of other parties to stay in power. It didn’t take long for the focus to shift to Northern Ireland: With the Liberal Democrats ruling out a partnership, there were few options left. And so, by lunchtime on Friday Theresa May was meeting with the queen to ask her for permission to form a government, consisting of an agreement between the Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which won 10 seats. It’s a measure of how disconnected the rest of the United Kingdom is from Northern Ireland that many newspapers in Britain suddenly found themselves having to explain to their readers who the DUP are and what they believe.
Almost 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement brought a formal end to the violent conflict known as “The Troubles,” politics in Northern Ireland remains divided along sectarian lines: Protestant unionists on one side, Catholic republicans on the other. Throughout the Troubles, Theresa May’s new partners at Westminster were regarded the uncompromising hard core of Protestant unionism in Northern Ireland: pro-life, pro-union, and at times, anti-peace process. Their leadership was closely linked with loyalist paramilitary groups implicated in the murder of civilians. Like many politicians in the North their leader, Arlene Foster, has personal experiences of the Troubles that inform her current politics: Her father, a policeman, was shot in 1979 by the Irish Republican Army. (They later bombed a school bus she was on in an attempt to kill the driver, who they believed was involved in a paramilitary group.) When the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the DUP and other parties involved were more moderate incarnations of themselves; in the years since, however, the hard-liners on all sides have come to the fore as enthusiasm for the peace process has fallen away. Support for the DUP has boomed with rising disillusionment in Northern Ireland, which is significantly poorer than the rest of the U.K. and still grapples with a raft of social problems — the legacy of decades of violence.
But recently, the DUP have had a torrid time. Arlene Foster, who made up one half of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, faced calls from across the political spectrum to resign this winter after she was implicated in a £400 million scandal, which saw the party administering a scheme that handed out money to businesses, ostensibly for renewable fuel purchases, but that frequently turned out to be fraudulent. She refused to step down. Her republican then-counterpart, Martin McGuinness, quit in protest — and the devolved government collapsed. Politics in Belfast has been particularly embittered ever since and looks poised to take a turn for the worse because of May’s agreement to form a coalition.
The collapse of the government triggered an election in early March. The vote took place in the shadow of a Brexit campaign that has raised deep-seated fears and divisions in Northern Ireland — about the potential implications of a new, hard border with the Republic of Ireland, but also about the potential loss of funding for community-building projects, much of which necessarily comes from the European Union because money from London or Dublin might be seen as partisan.
Lingering bitterness over the Brexit campaign bled into the March vote: Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party, had campaigned openly in favor of the U.K. remaining a part of the EU and cast the decision to leave as yet more evidence of England overriding the interests of Northern Ireland. The DUP, for its part, had backed Brexit as a necessity for regaining British sovereignty. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein urged voters from across the North to vote on the basis of being unionists or republicans, and to endorse the two hard-line parties accordingly, rather than their more moderate counterparts (the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, respectively). During the campaign, Foster infamously likened voting for Sinn Fein to “feeding the crocodile.”
The elections on March 2 saw a Sinn Fein surge: They came within one seat of a majority, the closest result between nationalist and unionist parties in generations. But the negotiations that followed still did not produce a government; the bitterness of the campaign left far fewer moderates to negotiate a compromise. The issue was put on hold for general elections across the United Kingdom and hasn’t been resolved since: When power-sharing fails in Belfast, power returns to London. Sinn Fein has been left smarting on the sidelines, despite the party achieving its greatest-ever electoral result. Meanwhile, Foster, as controversial a figure in the province as ever, has been catapulted to the heart of British government.
The relationship between London and Belfast is always a complicated one, and the relationship between the Conservative Party and Northern Ireland particularly so. Within the province, it is still seen almost unanimously as the party of Thatcher, whose tough stance on the IRA and endorsement of measures like internment without trial to defeat the republican cause are remembered as undeniably brutal. But more recently, too, there have been memorable missteps: In March, the Conservative secretary for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, remarked that the historical investigations team, a police unit in Northern Ireland focused on investigating unsolved cases of murder during the Troubles, has paid too much attention to the actions of British forces, and not enough to IRA crimes — effectively politicizing the only established effort to unpack the legacy of the Troubles in an area riven with the scars of conflict. There’s already an altogether reasonable impression in the North that London, particularly under a Conservative government, isn’t exactly an honest broker — that it openly favors the unionist side and has no real interest in dealing honestly with the opposition. May’s decision today will cement this even further.
Meanwhile, the future of the province is looking extremely bleak, even by Northern Ireland standards. Overseas territories notwithstanding, the province is the site of the U.K.’s only land border, a strip which is currently unmarked and unmanned but whose status is under threat as part of Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU. Closing the border would mean Northern Ireland’s largest trade partner would be behind a closed border or unfavorable trade tariffs. People in the North have gotten used to seeing the open border as one of the few non-politicized issues in the region; though the DUP has said that it isn’t in favor of a hard border, it’s still hard not to imagine that, at the very least, the border will be politicized in a way it hasn’t been before, with potentially dire effects for the economy.
It’s not yet clear what the DUP will try to get out of its new role as kingmaker. The party’s decision to enter government with the Conservatives might have been made easier as a result of the presence of Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Party leader was accused throughout the campaign of sympathizing with the IRA and Sinn Fein. Corbyn was public in his support of a peace process before there was one, and urged not only a dialogue with Sinn Fein but an end to British military involvement in Northern Ireland — at a time when the IRA was still actively killing British soldiers. Twenty-five years on, he has found out for himself that even the idea of associating with Sinn Fein is politically toxic: The association was enough to portray Corbyn as a threat to the U.K. The DUP pointed out they believed that not having Corbyn at No. 10 Downing Street was enough by itself to make an agreement worthwhile. Now if Brexit negotiations allow for anything other than a closed border, they can claim credit and put Sinn Fein’s advance on ice.
Northern Ireland politics have momentarily devolved from their usual tumultuous mode to a state of deep dysfunction. London’s government now relies on the support of a party reviled by large swathes of the electorate in the North to push forward with an agenda which is, in turn, widely loathed as well. Coupled with the suspension of its political institutions, the linchpin of the peace process, the future of the province has once again been shaped by events to its south — and is less clear than ever.
Photo credit: CHARLES MCQUILLAN/Getty Images