Theresa May’s proposed ‘Conservative – Unionist’ coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists is set to face Parliament. Concern across the UK has hinged on the anti-abortion and homophobic nature of the DUP, concern for Northern Ireland’s power sharing government and the likelihood of a hard Brexit. In light of this, Maev McDaid and Brian Christopher seek to answer the important questions: What are the historical circumstances from which the DUP were formed? What will this coalition mean for Tory policy? What does it mean for power-sharing in Northern Ireland? How will the UK’s only EU border fare?
The cold reality of modern British imperialism was exposed by the recent Brexit vote, which had no inbuilt safeguards for Ireland. Britain partitioned the island in 1922 to suit its interests and risks doing so again. The EU border will now run along the British imposed border around the six counties still claimed by Westminster.
Ireland once represented a weak ‘back door’ to England’s enemies and was a security obsession. Today it’s often an afterthought. But when Theresa May announced her government today she included the word “unionist” in the name of the Conservative Party. Suddenly, England had remembered its quaint back garden. There it found ten Unionist MPs, fresh from a surge that has arisen from the latest phase of polarisation in the North of Ireland.
Who they are:
The BBC’s lowdown on the DUP tells us they are Eurosceptic, concerned with terrorism and looking for some low tax economic policies – a hugely sanitised version of who they really are. The DUP grew out of the virulently anti-Catholic congregation of Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church. Many of its leaders have been associated with terrorism. And not just paramilitary loyalist terrorism, but also state-sponsored targeting of innocent Catholic civilians, and the assassination of lawyers and other civilian leaders. Its former leader Peter Robinson was arrested and convicted of leading a loyalist mob across the Irish border and attacking an unarmed Garda station in 1986.
Moreover, the DUPs early leadership took anti-Catholic prejudice to heights unseen by the traditional Protestant establishment – borrowing far right anti-trade unionist tactics to destroy class struggle.
To really grasp who the DUP are requires a brief glance at their social policies. The party claims it is protecting ‘family values’ by opposing the extension of equal marriage to Northern Ireland. More than that they claim homosexuality is an abomination, but can nonetheless be cured.
Sammy Wilson, a senior figure, called climate change a “con”, on the basis that it was an inconvenient obstacle to agriculture. The DUP also promote the teaching of creationism and that the world is flat. Anti-abortion, too, has been a consistent policy of the DUP – mostly: ‘don’t have them’ or ‘die’ or ‘go to prison trying’.
One could easily group the DUP with UKIP or the BNP or Donald Trump. They are not new to us – Irish people have had to put up with their prejudice and corruption for years. They deny that the Irish language is anything more than a set of IRA code words. They practically bankrupted the Northern Irish assembly with a renewable heat energy scandal that benefited their own families and donors.
The DUP rhetoric on political violence is pure deflection. Only days before they joined government with Martin McGuinness, they were using the term “Sinn Fein – IRA” and have always condemned terrorism, as the party leader Arlene Foster made clear in her speech. On the other hand, the party is linked closely to the UDA, which is widely seen as it’s preferred paramilitary. As recently as last year the party was channelling £5 million of public money to a UDA slush fund. If you can imagine rural Tories with a soft spot for Combat 18 you might start getting the right idea.
Why are they popular?
The Good Friday Agreement of 1997 was a landmark in challenging the deeply unfair setup in the six counties. Years of unionist domination, British military occupation, draconian anti-terror laws, overbearing security apparatus and state-sanctioned discrimination could finally be challenged and eliminated. In simple terms, it’s a three way compromise. Unionists got a commitment from nationalists that reunification of Ireland would be consensual; Irish nationalists got a more regulated relationships with British institutions, but also cross border co-operation, with both sides agreeing to disarm and share power.
In reality, this has meant the entrenchment of sectarianism in government. The need for “cross-community” consensus in both the executive and legislative assembly means members have to designate themselves as “unionist” or “nationalist”, enshrining the artificial rivalries that the British state created into constitutional law. The ‘zero-sum’ game of politics therefore continued and, without the need for the compromising skills of the SDLP or Ulster Unionists, the electorate was easily tempted by more sectarianism. Socialist class politics were squeezed out in the slow-burning carnival of nationalist reaction that followed.
Worst of all, the DUP’s eagerness for a hard Brexit and a far-right British government means it now finds itself as the powerbroker at the heart of Westminster. But this comes at a time when devolution has shifted devolved power from Belfast to de-facto “direct rule” from London. That puts the party in an unforeseen juncture where it may benefit the unionists to squander the opportunity to restore power sharing in favour of back-room dealings with Theresa May.
What it means for you:
This minority government is therefore intolerable to the electorate in Britain who cannot hold the DUP accountable and an affront to the people of Ireland whose fragile constitutional settlement has now been infiltrated by an explosive Trojan horse. It is clear that the DUP are ready to give backing to Theresa May on a confidence agreement basis, if not a formal coalition. The Tories and their Ulster mutation share enough common ground to allow for a fairly easy relationship to exist. This means we should not rest any hope on the irreconcilability of one reactionary party with another. But neither should we underestimate the rigidity of the DUP – Paisley was famous for saying “No” and “Never” to every UK Prime Minister he met. One sticky issue could be a weakness the left could exploit. And the DUP’s dominance mean that they are charged with representing every unionist in Northern Ireland – a large working class base that will suffer disproportionately from austerity and the Tory attacks. Massive pressure needs to be placed on this weak and wobbly coalition.
There is also a strange reversal of fortunes now. Loyalism and Orangeism in Ireland were created to divide and rule the Irish working class. Now, the orange elite are lending their mandates to Tories to attack the working people in Britain. This is a strange and vulnerable situation for both coalition partners as it will lead to people raising questions about how the United Kingdom fails as a constitutional project to reflect the needs of ordinary people, whilst giving endless flexibility to our exploiters. These are questions we must raise as we hit the streets demanding a government that represents us all.
Brian Christopher is a teacher in London and Maev McDaid is a PhD student in Sheffield, both are originally from Derry.