The newly dreadful state of the Union

Last Thursday's election was a shock. It was appalling for the Tories, extraordinarily encouraging for Labour and something of a "meh" for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. And it was dreadful for nationalist parties. UKIP was completely wiped out, ending up with no seats at Westminster and a hugely reduced share of the poll. The SNP lost seats, and even Plaid Cymru did less well than it had hoped. Nationalism, it seems, is dying down. Well, in the UK, anyway.

Faced with a disastrous result, any half-decent party leader would step down. To his credit, Paul Nuttall, the UKIP leader, did exactly that. But not Theresa May. Dear me, no. In the last two days, we have discovered the lengths to which Mrs. May will go to retain her hold on power.

The Tories' desperate reach for power

Lacking an absolute majority, the Tories had no choice but to try to form some kind of alliance with another party. Their previous coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats - fingers still badly burned from last time - refused to play: "No pact, no deal, no coalition", they said as the results rolled in. The only other mainland parties with sufficient seats to be able to give the Tories the absolute majority they need to force through the Queen's Speech, and by extension the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act that is necessary to enact Brexit, are the Labour Party and the SNP, both of which have previously ruled out doing any deal with the Tories.

But there was a way out. Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) announced that it would be willing to discuss some kind of arrangement to keep the Conservative Party in power at Westminster. So the Tories hurriedly remembered their Unionist roots. On Friday morning, in her announcement that she would be forming a new Government, Theresa May used an unusual name for the Conservative party (my emphasis):
Only the Conservative and Unionist party has the legitimacy and ability to provide that certainty by commanding a majority in the House of Commons.
This is in fact the party's full name, though it has rarely been used since the Ulster Unionists separated from it in 1974.

Becoming once again the party of Union would be no bad thing, electorally: the majority of people in all four countries still support the Union, though support is diminishing, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland. One of the most extraordinary features of the Tory party's support for a hard Brexit is the risk that it poses to the Union. It is hard to see how Conservatives can claim to be Unionist while pursuing a course of action that threatens to tear the Union apart.

But the Northern Irish Unionist party on which Theresa May now depends for power is not the Tories’ former ally, the Ulster Unionists. No, Mrs. May seeks to ally herself with the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a fundamentalist Protestant group with links to paramilitary organisations.

This is a marriage of convenience forged in hell. And it potentially puts at risk the security of the United Kingdom.

The polarisation of Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland government collapsed in January 2017 amid allegations of corruption against the DUP and its leader, Arlene Foster. In the ensuing election, the DUP and the hardline Republican party Sinn Fein ended neck and neck, with the other parties trailing badly. Negotiations to form a new power-sharing government failed in March 2017 when Sinn Fein refused to nominate a Deputy First Minister. Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein President, claimed that the DUP was obstructing progress on key legislation:
“The DUP’s approach thus far has been to engage in a minimalist way on all of the key issues, including legacy issues, an Irish Language Act, a Bill of Rights, and marriage equality,” Adams said. 
He added: “They have been reinforced in this by the British government’s stance. This is unacceptable and a matter of grave concern.”
Despite Adams' criticisms, Sinn Fein and the DUP agreed to extend negotiations until the 29th June. If no power-sharing government can be formed by then, Northern Ireland will be ruled directly from Westminster. The deadline is drawing close, and as yet there is no agreement.

And into this inflammatory situation, Theresa May tossed an entire box of lit matches. In last week’s General Election, both the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP were wiped out. The DUP is now the largest party in Northern Ireland, and the second largest is Sinn Fein.

The increasing popularity of hardline sectarian parties in Northern Ireland at the expense of more moderate parties has gone largely unnoticed and unreported by an astonishingly negligent British press. In the last decade or so, Northern Irish affairs have seldom made the front page of any British newspaper. But the present situation in Northern Ireland deserves much more attention than it is getting. It should worry anyone who remembers the Troubles.

Exactly why opinion is polarising like this is unclear. But a considerable factor must surely be uncertainty over the future of Northern Ireland in the light of the UK's imminent departure from the EU. The fact is that the hard Brexit favoured by the Brexiteers in Theresa May’s team is a considerable threat to peace in Northern Ireland.

Brexit and the border question

An open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is a prerequisite of the Good Friday Agreement under which peace has been maintained in Northern Ireland for nearly twenty years. It is also one of the very few things on which all parties have hitherto agreed.

But now the British government no longer agrees. It wants to leave not only the single market, but the existing EU customs union. This would mean ending free movement of goods, services and people between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Admittedly, the aim is to create a new agreement which would allow free movement of goods, services and people across the border: but as Ireland will remain a member of the EU, such an agreement would require ratification by the entire EU, which may not be achievable within the two-year time limit. To make matters worse, the British government has repeatedly threatened to leave the EU with no deal at all if the EU won’t accede to its demands. This would slam the border shut overnight.

The UK Government's white paper suggests that the pre-EU Common Travel Area between Northern Ireland and Ireland could be restored, and customs checks would not have to be imposed. This, I’m afraid, is a pipe dream. Ireland is bound by EU treaties. It cannot do a bilateral trade deal with the UK. Nor would it be reasonable to expect Ireland not to police the EU’s external border with the UK. The UK can hardly expect cooperation from the EU over Calais if it insists that another border with the EU must remain open.

Some have called for Northern Ireland to have some kind of “special” status which would allow it the rights and privileges of an EU member after the UK has left the EU. But with a hard Brexit, this would probably mean imposing a customs border and movement controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Such a “half in, half out” arrangement would inevitably diminish trade with the UK, and increase the likelihood of future reunification of Ireland. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is fiercely opposed by the Unionist parties.

The EU seems to have appreciated how important it is to resolve the question of the Northern Ireland border early in the Brexit negotiations:
The Union has consistently supported the goal of peace and reconciliation enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, and continuing to support and protect the achievements, benefits and commitments of the Peace Process will remain of paramount importance. In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order. In this context, the Union should also recognise existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between the United Kingdom and Ireland which are compatible with EU law.
In stark contrast, the UK government's statements as yet fall a long way short of giving Northern Ireland the priority it needs. I am frankly appalled that the lunatics running this asylum have thought so little about the consequences for Northern Ireland of a hard Brexit, or worse, a "no deal". Sadly, however, this is characteristic of British attitudes to Northern Ireland. When it is quiet, it is ignored. Only when there is trouble does anyone care.

Trading peace for power

From Mrs. May's point of view, a "confidence and supply" arrangement, or even a full coalition, with the DUP is simply a pragmatic power-sharing deal such as David Cameron did with the Liberal Democrats. But this is Northern Ireland. Normal rules don't apply.

The Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 brought a formal end to hostilities. Ever since, there has been an uneasy peace in Northern Ireland.  Sectarian violence is rare now, but there are still occasional murders. And the two main parties still have links to paramilitary organisations, not all of which have laid down their weapons. Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, has recently been criticised for meeting the head of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA) leader only two days after the UDA was implicated in a sectarian murder.

The DUP originally opposed the Good Friday Agreement, and remains lukewarm about it. But as long as the Good Friday Agreement remains in force, both the DUP and Sinn Fein are bound by it. Neither can unilaterally depart from its terms.

And nor can the British Government. Written into the Good Friday Agreement is a clause requiring the British government (and, eventually, the Irish government) to exercise strict impartiality in all its dealings with the people of Northern Ireland:
 (v) affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities;
If a British government enters directly into some sort of power-sharing deal with a sectarian party, it can no longer be considered impartial. Since the survival of Theresa May's government now depends entirely on doing some kind of deal with the DUP, the Good Friday Agreement will inevitably be breached.

I suspect the sin is more one of omission than commission. As Leighton Andrews explains, the current British government seldom exercises its responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement. Theresa May simply doesn’t understand how it works. But in Northern Ireland, ignorance can cost lives. Mrs. May's hold on power may be bought at a very high price.

Given the criticisms Sinn Fein has already levelled at the DUP and the British Government, there seems little doubt that Sinn Fein would see such a deal as a breach of faith and possibly of law. Return to direct rule - with all the risks that entails for peace - now looks extremely likely. No power-sharing government could surely be formed while the DUP is propping up a Conservative government at Westminster.

It is all too clear why the DUP was so quick to offer to discuss a deal. It does not like the power sharing arrangements in the Good Friday Agreement and would much rather be running this show by itself. Mrs. May offered the DUP a golden opportunity to seize power by means of patronage.

But the sheer naivety of Theresa May beggars belief. She has, at a stroke, undermined her party's commitment to hard Brexit and her own insistence that "no deal" must be an option: the DUP is never going to agree to anything that would interfere with the Northern Irish borders, either with the Republic of Ireland or with the UK. More importantly, she has unilaterally ripped up the principles upon which power-sharing in Northern Ireland is based, and vastly increased political tensions in the province, already rising because of the uncertainty caused by Brexit.

I hope to God that the Tory backbenchers force May to resign, before this unholy alliance does lasting damage to the Union they claim to support.

Image from Politics Home, with thanks. 

Updated on 11th June to reflect news that Downing Street had prematurely released news of a deal when no agreement had in fact been reached. What a bunch of incompetents. 


  1. When was the last time the UK had a government and PM as inept as May's? It's honestly hard to say - this makes Cameron's government look competent by comparison.

  2. The reason for the polarisation was a cycle of one side aggravating the other and vice versa.

    The DUP would say or do something obnoxious to spite SF, this would annoy Nationalists and make them more inclined to support SF. This in turn made Unionist voters angry that IRA members were getting support, so they would give more votes to the DUP to put the Shinners in their place.

    After several cycles of this, the UUP and the SDLP were ground down. The Brexit vote opened up constitutional issues, which has turned every vote into a proxy border poll, which further incentivises people to vote for hardline parties.

    A further structural incentive was the fact the largest party gets to be first minister. This was the result of a SF-DUP deal back in 2006. This lets the DUP prey on unionist fears of an SF FM to ensure that Unionists voted for them for fear of splitting the vote and letting SF slip through. Of course, this makes Nationalists angry and inclined to vote SF, in turn giving the DUP a boogeyman to get more votes.

    SF are facilitating this polarisation so Catholics end up filled with resentment. SF are now an extremely powerful party within the context of NI, so this strategy was successful in narrow terms.

    1. Yes. Two polarised parties in a divided nation is a stable model. What both sides want is control over their own populations and continued strife facilitates this. Same with Israel/Palestine where moderate politicians have been replaced by hardliners on each side.

  3. In the meantime there are the risks if there really is another world recession soon and if the markets become unstable. It is a bad time to have an unstable coalition government, as we discovered in 1929.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. There are changes afoot in Ulster that some pundits seem to have missed.

    Sectarian parties are not 'increasingly popular'. The vote share of both SF and the DUP are, in general, falling. Typically each can now expect no more than 30% of the popular vote with the other 40% voting for parties that do not define themselves in nationalistic terms.

    At least 10%, and probably quite a bit more, of marriages and relationships are now 'mixed'. Because of the way the RC church conducts its business the children of these couples are more likely to be educated (and counted) as RC, but these are families that are not going to vote for either SF or the DUP, are they are not going to vote for a united Ireland either.

    Sooner or later one of two sectarian parties is going to be replaced in the executive by by a center ground party who just want NI to be a normal country.

    In a normal country Gerry Adams and Michele O'Neil are no different to Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. SF need politics to remain a sectarian headcount and for NI to remain an unnatural political culture because that is the only way that they can be sure of remaining in power. It is also the only path that provides a prospect of offering the ex IRA men something in the future.

    It is a matter of principle in protestant culture that leaders can and should be ignored when necessary, whereas in Catholicism the reverse applies. This allows the emergence of odd protestant idiotic leader but the pragmatism and independence of the membership provides a surprisingly flexible response to adversity.

    The real long term change might be to open Protestant intellectual culture* up to the likes of Ruth Davidson, and not worry about past prejudices. That way that the unionists can remain as one of top two players in what is now becoming a three way fight. In this way a working Tory/DUP relationship becomes a force for good because of light that it lets in to Ulster politics.

    *(Before you laugh at the notion of 'Irish protestant intellectual' This 1% of the UK population gave us George Berkley, Jonathan Swift, George Boole, Robert Boyle, William Hazlitt,and Francis Hutchinson, just to list the well known names.)


  6. I have been reading a lot about what can happen in a Parliament in which no party has a majority in the last couple of days, but this piece stands out -- particularly because of the tone when referring to "Mrs May" and the critical (not technical) clarity when explaining the North Ireland situation and the disastrous consequences of a possible Tories alliance with the DUP.

    I was shocked when I recently learnt more details about what is going on in Northen Ireland -- its government has collapsed since January 2017, Brexit negotiations kicking, snap GE called….and the press barely covered the entire situation (and consequences). It is beyond me to understand how and why. Bush and Maguire’s piece in the NewStateman on the possible outcomes in a case of hung Parliament was very good… but more like a 101 kind of thing, no problematisation really.

    Maybe no expert brought to our attention the determining role that Northern Ireland can/will play in British politics because the possibility of Labour gaining seats (Conservatives losing some) was out of the debate too.

    I think we have just found out that idea of “no majority is better than a bad majority” can be a ‘little bit’ more complicated …

    Anyway, really nice piece! Thanks Coppolla!

  7. Does this have anything to do with the current political situation ?

  8. "This is in fact the party's full name, though it has rarely been used since the Ulster Unionists separated from it in 1974"

    I don't know how often it has been used between 1974 and 2017 but the front page of the Conservative manifesto for the GE 2017 contains the words "The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2017"

  9. @ 1729torus, that's a good explanation, I have cut and pasted it onto my blog.

  10. Relax everyone. Politicians will have to negotiate with each other and do deals. Politics in action, as occurs in lots of other places all the time.

    1. And why should we relax? Because deals don't make a difference? Because politics doesn't have an influence on the real world? That's just not true.

      "Politics in action" has created wars, depressions, famines, genocides, etc. The failure of politicians to take their leadership role seriously and their lack of competence is a grave danger with very real consequences - viz. Trump (but also plenty of other less blatant examples).

  11. There is one decision that has got us to this point that in retrospect was irresponsible and selfish and seems to have gone largely uncommented upon. It was Cameron resigning the morning after the referendum. If Cameron had stood up and said "I got us into this mess, and I will get us out of this" on the morning of 24th June last year we might be in a different place now.

  12. Frances Coppola - thank you for the very informative post.


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