The prospect of a coalition of this kind is an unprecedented oneby Siobhan Fenton / June 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
After one of the greatest acts of miscalculation in electoral history, Theresa May’s big gamble has backfired spectacularly and the Conservatives are now standing on the precipice a hung-parliament. All eyes are now on the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which has confirmed it will agree to prop up a Tory government. The party won ten seats last night—one of its best election results ever.
Northern Ireland seldom featured in the election campaign, yet the smallest region of the UK now looks set to hold the balance of power in the national government. But at what cost to Northern Ireland—and with what impact on British politics?
Although political behemoths in Northern Ireland, the DUP are little known across the Irish Sea. They are staunch unionists, who identify as British and see their main role as ensuring Northern Ireland remains in the UK.
Their secondary focus is on preserving what they consider to be traditional Christian values. They have vetoed marriage equality for same-sex couples in Northern Ireland—with a track record of members making incendiary comments—and also support the region’s abortion ban, which sees women given prison sentences for having one.
An alliance between the DUP and Conservatives will have a number of serious ramifications both for Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole. First of all, the Conservatives will come under fire for entering a partnership with a party which is by all accounts regressive, homophobic and misogynistic. Due to the corner May has backed herself and her party into, it is criticism she may have no choice but to swallow in order to remain in power.
The second major impact of joint-DUP rule for Britain will come in the form of Brexit. The DUP is a staunchly pro-Brexit party. In fact, it is the only one of the mainstream Northern Irish parties to back Brexit, despite the region itself voting to remain in the EU. For the DUP, Brexit is seen as favourable not only due to its policies on immigration and trade, but also due to its commitment to Unionism. Many in the DUP would like to see greater barriers, both physical and bureaucratic, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as this would make them feel safer about Northern Ireland remaining in the UK and preventing a united Ireland.
For them, therefore, an end to freedom of movement between the UK and Ireland would be quite an attractive proposition. This could influence the kind of Brexit deal the UK now gets, potentially hardening the stance the UK has on issues like freedom of movement.
In addition, the DUP are hardliners on security issues, due to their experience of the Troubles. As the Conservatives seek to tackle Islamic extremist terrorism, their policies may be hardened at the request of the DUP, who have seen internment without trial used against the IRA in Northern Ireland and supported an armed police force locally.
Meanwhile, a number of issues for Northern Irish people will be hugely impacted on by a government with a DUP-Conservative pact at its heart. The aforementioned ban on abortion was recently ruled a breach of international human rights law, with the Belfast High Court ordering Stormont to begin allowing abortion in some circumstances. Along with other Northern Irish parties, the DUP voted against any change, meaning the ban stayed in place regardless. As a result, it then fell on the Westminster government to ensure Northern Irish women’s rights would be upheld by passing legislation in London—but the Conservative party turned a blind eye to the issue throughout the last parliament. In a DUP-Conservative coalition, it is likely that they will continue to ignore the issue in exchange for support.
Furthermore, Northern Ireland’s peace process risks being destabilised by the coalition. In the aftermath of the Troubles, British governments are required to be neutral towards Northern Irish parties and not pick “sides.” With a DUP-Conservative coalition, it is difficult to see how the Tories can claim to be a neutral broker on Northern Irish issues anymore. This will likely create angst and alienation among Northern Ireland’s nationalist or Catholic communities, who already see the Conservatives as naturally biased towards unionists in the region. Any credibility the British government had in attending power-sharing talks as an interested, but impartial, observer is now undermined.
This is particularly significant given that power-sharing collapsed in Northern Ireland in January, when Sinn Féin pulled out of government with the DUP citing the so-called “Cash for Ash” scandal. The region has been without the government ever since. The parties have a deadline towards the end of this month to reach a deal, assisted by representatives of the British government—but those talks are now likely to be botched by a coalition.
The prospect of a coalition of this kind is an unprecedented one. Its implications both in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland, as well as relations between the two, will be immense. The coming months and years will reveal at what cost it comes to both regions.