BRITISH politics has been thrown into turmoil by the ill-fated General Election called by Theresa May. The Conservatives remain the largest party and May remains Prime Minister, but the government’s future is uncertain.
Uncertainty was the very reason Theresa May called this election—a spectacular own goal, the outcome of which will be keenly felt in Ireland.
The Democratic Unionist Party has emerged as the clear winner in the North. Winning ten seats, they are three seats clear of their nearest and bitterest rivals, Sinn Féin.
Sinn Fein continue to make progress winning another three seats to take their total to seven.
There were real losers too. The Social Democratic and Labour Party lost all their MPs, as did the Ulster Unionist Party. Two parties so central to the Good Friday Agreement—the parties of Hume and Trimble —will now not be represented in Westminster.
The loss of three SDLP seats, particularly the loss of the former power base of John Hume in Foyle has brought the very existence of the party into question. It marks the end of an era.
The Ulster Unionist Party too was buried by both the DUP and Sinn Féin. Its meltdown raises existential questions for them. The Alliance leader Naomi Long—the bookies’ favourite—also failed to make a breakthrough losing by 8500 votes to the DUP in Belfast. The final seat was taken by an Independent Unionist.
The Brexit Coalition
After the Brexit referendum, the most Ireland hoped for was that Britain would remain in the single market and the customs union. After David Cameron’s resignation and the assent to power of Theresa May with her Brexiteer micro-cabinet, the best that could be hoped for was a special arrangement for Northern Ireland that would mitigate the impact on Ireland.
Now Mrs May’s Conservative Government must rely on the support of the DUP. This puts Arlene Foster’s MPs in a strong position to soften May’s Brexit negotiating stance, at least insofar as it affects Ireland. Even at this early stage in negotiations with the EU the likelihood of a hard Brexit has receded.
DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed the result was a ‘good night for the Union.’ However, the support for the Union will come at a price. The DUP’s redline for supporting a Conservative Government will include a guarantee that there will be no post-Brexit status for Northern Ireland that even partially decouples it from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Speaking after his re-election, deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: “While we will focus on the special circumstances, geography and certain industries of Northern Ireland we will be pressing that home very strongly. Special status, however, within the European Union is a nonsense.”
Immediately after the results its leader Arlene Foster also explicitly reiterated a softening of their initial Brexit stance.
“No-one wants to see a ‘hard’ Brexit,” she said. “…we need to do it in a way that respects the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, and, of course, our shared history and geography with the Republic of Ireland.”
So, while preserving the Union by opposing any ‘special status’ within the EU for Northern Ireland as proposed by Sinn Féin, the DUP will not accept a Brexit that imposes a hard border or excessive economic disruption on the island of Ireland.
Who are the DUP?
The history of the DUP and the bombastic Reverend Ian Paisley are one and the same. Evolving from the Protestant Unionist Party it has historically strong links to Ian Paisley’s evangelical Protestant Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. Founded in 1971, it maintains socially conservative positions, but has steadily grown as a political force over the past two decades.
The Free Presbyterianism of Ian Paisley is the most extreme expression of anti-Catholicism in the North and informs the ideology of the DUP for much of its existence. For Paisleyites, Catholicism is not only totally evil, it is very effective and powerful and Protestants need to be ever vigilant to defend their faith against it.
Extreme creationists within the DUP believed that the Catholic Church is behind the European Union. To them it is a Papal conspiracy, foreseen in Daniel and Revelation and a vehicle by which Catholicism can realise its ambition for world domination. One of the reasons, perhaps, for its passionate support for Brexit.
A onetime supporter of apartheid in South Africa, it remains a right-wing populist party characterised by its staunch Ulster Loyalist position. Its brand of ethnic nationalism is unusual in Britain and has led even moderate members to become politically attractive to paramilitarists.
In the years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, it has been supported by Loyalist groups such as the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commando, which have been proscribed terrorist organisations.
In this election, the Ulster Political Research Group—which provides political advice to the UDA—endorsed the DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly for the South Belfast constituency. It took some public pressure for the leadership to distance itself from the support.
Following its success in this General Election, it now holds all the cards for the Tories. But it has nowhere else to go because of Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived relationship with Irish Republicans they will never deal with Labour while he remains its leader.
A game changer
The result and ultimate fallout from June’s General Election has yet to be played out in full, but one thing which is certain is that the appetite for a hard Brexit has diminished.
Younger voters—those most likely to be affected most by a hard Brexit—held sway. The resultant hung parliament is unlikely to last the year so another election is probable.
This will force all parties to clarify or modify their positions on Brexit. The Labour Party—who will have reasons to be confident going into another election—would have to clarify its position too. Their tone is more likely to be conciliatory and more likely to take account of the needs of Ireland.
The result also throws into doubt the expected restarting of talks on a new Stormont Executive which when they do start will be overshadowed by this new Con-DUP arrangement.
Sinn Féin too, had a successful election. The addition of three seats and an increased percentage of the vote makes them the unassailable voice of Irish Nationalism.
What will it do with its new-found power? If, as seems likely, it continues its policy of abstentionism it will leave Westminster without any Irish Nationalist voice. The only representation from the North will be the DUP, leaving Sinn Féin open to claims of an abdication of responsibility.
The Good Friday Agreement committed the UK Government to a position of neutrality over the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland. How does this neutrality square with this new confidence and supply arrangement with the largest Unionist party?
If this a sign of a further undermining of the Good Friday Agreement surely Sinn Féin must act to force another General Election to protect the Peace Process.
Stephen Colbert is a lecturer in Social Sciences based in Motherwell, a runner, musician, political animal and father of one