Britain Has New Northern Ireland Troubles
The British are angry that their new government is forcing them to be reminded of a part of their country they’d prefer to ignore.
The day before the British election, I explained to my 15-year-old daughter how the system worked for voters in Northern Ireland. Neither the Labour Party nor the Liberal Democrats organized here — the former seeing its interests represented by the primarily Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which leans toward a policy of reunification with Ireland, the latter having an affiliation with the nonsectarian Alliance Party. The Conservatives, or Tories, have traditionally had close ties to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which favors remaining a part of the United Kingdom, though they now have a Northern Irish wing. But as they were fielding candidates in only seven of the 18 constituencies, they could hardly be said to be wholehearted in their approach.
“So,” my daughter said, “we don’t actually have any say in who forms the government?”
“Like snow on Christmas Day,” I replied. “Maybe once or twice in a lifetime.”
“How is that fair?”
When we woke on June 9, the day after the election, it was to the news that the Tories were eight seats short of the 326 needed for an overall majority in the House of Commons. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had won an unprecedented 10 of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats.
Prime Minister Theresa May had moved quickly to say she would be seeking the party’s support — support she formally received, on a “confidence and supply” basis, this week. For the first time in my daughter’s lifetime and the second in mine, Northern Irish voters really had had a say in who formed the government.
My own vote, for the record, had reduced the DUP’s majority in East Belfast by one. But for the people I met in London on the post-election Friday — all well educated, politically informed and engaged — I was still responsible for answering the one question they all shared: “Who the fuck are the DUP?” That (give or take a “fuck”) was apparently the most frequently Googled question in the first 24 hours after the election result was known. Googlers no doubt quickly learned that the party is opposed to same-sex marriage — making it out of step with the rest of the island of Ireland, as well as the United Kingdom — and has used a veto, known as a “petition of concern,” in the Northern Ireland Assembly to block its implementation here. (More than 20,000 of us marched on Belfast’s City Hall in protest.) It is also opposed to abortion, although in this it is no different from the majority of political parties in Ireland, north or south.
More damning — and perplexing — in the eyes of many, a number of its leading lights are active members of the Orange Order, an exclusively Protestant fraternal organization, formed in 1795, whose annual “marching season” has been a recurrent source of resentment among Northern Ireland’s Catholic population. (And not just Catholics. It’s almost a given among my friends of all religions and none that when July 12 — the biggest date in the Orange calendar — comes into view, we, to a man, woman, and child, get the hell out of Dodge.)
Within 48 hours of the election, an online petition calling on the Tories not to do a deal with the DUP had gathered more than half a million signatures. At moments in the days that followed the response in Britain to the DUP’s newfound influence spilled over into a demonizing of the 36 percent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted for it. (The second-largest party, Sinn Fein, received 29.4 percent of the vote.)
An English friend living in Belfast texted me, “I don’t like the DUP – OBVIOUSLY – but is it me or is there some nasty anti-NI-ism” — that is, anti-Northern Ireland-ism — “lurking in English coverage?”
To which, my answer was, “It’s not you.”
Let me be clear, I am opposed to everything the DUP — which was founded, forged, by the Rev. Ian Paisley in 1971 in his own, Protestant fundamentalist image — stands for. But the party’s rise to prominence in Northern Ireland has in no small part been aided by policies pursued by both Labour and Conservative governments in London since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that were aimed — in very short — in bringing the more extreme versions of unionism and nationalism into the center ground. The DUP overtook the UUP electorally for the first time in 2004, three years after Sinn Fein outstripped the SDLP.
When the DUP entered into a coalition with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland’s Stormont Assembly in 2006, the step was hailed throughout much of the world as a triumph of our much-vaunted peace process. But what’s good enough for us is apparently not good enough for the rest of the United Kingdom. British people like coming here (readers of the Guardian newspaper last year voted Belfast their favorite U.K. city), but the vast majority of them clearly prefer not to have to think about the place too much: Northern Ireland Question Time in the House of Commons — the time set aside to discuss matters about our specific affairs — resembles an Irish League soccer match on a wet winter Wednesday night: a handful of MPs dotted around the otherwise empty chamber.
When the rest of Britain is obliged to deal with Northern Ireland, many seem inclined to treat the occasion as an invitation to indulge lazy prejudice. Newspaper front pages showing grim-faced DUP-ers in Orange sashes (in one case — Peter Robinson, erstwhile first minister of Northern Ireland — the red beret of the 1980s paramilitary group Ulster Resistance) were at least understandable. Less forgivable was a Daily Mail cartoon that showed drunk Northern Irishmen on the floor of a bar displaying a “Free Guinness for Life” sign.
Rumors abounded: Some said the DUP was asking for bans to be lifted on contentious Orange parades, such as the one at Drumcree in County Armagh, which in the mid-1990s led to serious disorder and even murder; others said it wanted a review of LGBT rights and marriage equality legislation in the U.K.
Anyone familiar with political negotiations in Northern Ireland will have been surprised by neither the rumors nor the fact that negotiations between the Tories and the DUP eventually dragged on for more than a fortnight. Northern Irish parties of all stripes are expert at stringing out talks, wringing the maximum amount of concessions from them. The agreement, when finally published this week, revealed that the DUP’s demands were focused more on matters such as health care and infrastructure — an extra 1 billion pounds of government money — than contentious issues like parading, although there was a clause in there about the implementation in Northern Ireland of the Armed Forces Covenant (in place elsewhere in the U.K.) aimed at improving the lot of British Army veterans.
For many, though, the fact that the Tories could have entered into a deal at all is in contravention of their responsibility under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement to remain an honest broker over Northern Ireland’s contested status as a part of the United Kingdom. In that context, the fact that Leo Varadkar, the new Irish taoiseach (that’s prime minister, for non-Irish speakers) and the country’s first openly gay leader, declared himself “very much reassured” after meeting Theresa May in Dublin ahead of the deal being concluded is perhaps surprising — more surprising certainly than his admission that there was no meeting of minds on equal marriage after an earlier meeting with DUP leader Arlene Foster. On that subject, however, Varadkar said so far as Northern Ireland was concerned, it was not a question anymore of “if” but “when.”
An Irish Times editorial went so far as to call the deal “a good one for Northern Ireland and by extension the whole island of Ireland.” To put that in context, the DUP was the only one of Northern Ireland’s political parties in favor of leaving the EU but said all along it did not want to see a return to a heavily policed border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, in recent years marked by nothing more conspicuous than a change in road signs, from miles per hour in the former to kilometers in the latter. This ambition seemed impossible to square with May’s “hard Brexit” stance in the run-up to the election. But with the disappearance of the Tory majority and the reliance on the DUP 10, the conviction is growing that a softer Brexit could be on the cards, one that perhaps sees the U.K. remain within the EU’s customs union if not its single market and — crucially — sees the Irish border remain “frictionless.”
These more cautiously optimistic notes chime with the one I heard struck by the man giving four American students a tour of East Belfast just last week. (There are so many tourists in Belfast these days that we’re all tour guides.) He explained to them that Arlene Foster was “somewhere to the left of Angela Merkel” and said one of the things the British press was struggling with, contemplating the DUP, was the fact that there was no equivalent in the U.K. of the Christian Democrat tradition, which forms the core of the European People’s Party, the largest bloc in the European Parliament, with 215 of the 750 seats.
There’ll be a lot of bluster about the consequences of a deal here, the tour guide told the American students, but in the end it’ll all be OK. Which, as last words go, are, admittedly, among the more infamous in this part of the world. But I’ll stick my neck out and say at the moment the worst that can happen is we’ll have another election before the end of the year and revert to Westminster politics as usual, with Northern Irish MPs a statistical irrelevance.
(In fact, if I were a Labour voter — would that I had the choice — I would say, given the anger elsewhere in the U.K. at that extra 1 billion pounds coming Northern Ireland’s way, that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.)
The best that can happen is there’ll be snow on Christmas Day.
Photo credit: CARL COURT/Getty Images