Catholic communities will be suspicious about how the money will be spent—with the extension of the military covenant set to increase tensions furtherby / June 26, 2017 / Leave a comment
After weeks of speculation and intense talks, a deal has finally been struck between the Democratic Unionist Party and the Conservatives. We now know the price for keeping Theresa May in power is the princely sum of £1 billion in extra funding for Northern Ireland. The cash injection is to be spent on a range of projects in Northern Ireland including infrastructure, health care, schools and high-speed broadband.
Welsh and Scottish politicians have already condemned the deal, citing fears that Northern Ireland is receiving preferential treatment among the devolved regions. English politicians, too, have raised concerns about how the Conservatives can justify austerity at home, while splashing the cash across the Irish Sea.
Nor is the situation straightforward within Northern Ireland itself. It has been generally assumed by many in Britain that citizens there will be delighted at the deal and that the Northern Irish will be rubbing their hands in glee at the new £1bn.
However, as ever in Northern Ireland, the picture is far more complex due to the region’s troubled past. In fact, many in Northern Ireland will view the deal with suspicion, fearing that—rather than all the region’s residents benefitting—the Protestant community could reap the rewards while Catholics see few of the benefits.
Such trepidation is reasonable. While the bloodshed of the Troubles has abated, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. Nationalists, who are primarily Catholic, and unionists, who are primarily Protestants, continue to live in different streets, attend different schools and even use different hospitals, libraries or leisure centres depending on their community.
A history of inequality
One of the main catalysts of the Troubles conflict was a sense of injustice felt by Catholics following years of preferential treatment for Protestant communities by Unionist governments. In fact, shortly after the state was established, one of Northern Ireland’s first Prime Ministers, Sir James Craig, announced in 1934: “All I boast is that we are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state.”
In the decades that followed, the Catholic city of Derry-Londonderry became synonymous with such sectarianism. Nationalists had considerably lower living standards than their unionist neighbours, who were given preferential access to council housing, schools and employment.
Under power-sharing, such overt discrimination has largely ended. Stronger equality legislation, the work of the Northern Irish Equality Commission and fairer representation of non-unionist politicians at Stormont have all meant that treatment of Protestant and Catholic communities has largely equalised.
However, some areas of inequality still linger. Research published just last week by the Equality Commission found that Catholics in Northern Ireland on waiting lists for social housing wait an average of six months longer than their Protestant counterparts.
Many Catholics in Northern Ireland may, therefore, view the £1bn DUP-Conservative deal with suspicion. The DUP will be watched carefully as they spend the money in case the funds are skewed towards “their own” community. To give one example, news that a hospital in a ‘Protestant area’ will receive funding could be met with backlash and suspicion by those who remember the dark days of overt discrimination.
Complicating matters further
Another aspect of the DUP-Conservative pact risks fuelling this incendiary mix further. One of the conditions stipulated in the deal document is that the military covenant must now be extended to include Northern Ireland. The covenant entitles former members of the armed forces to priority medical treatment, as well as assistance with housing and school places for their children. This agreement is rarely controversial in Britain, but is in Northern Ireland.
In Northern Ireland, it is overwhelmingly members of the Protestant community who join the British Army, while very few Catholics do. The covenant would therefore primarily give special treatment to local Northern Irish Protestants. Many Catholics in Northern Ireland did not see the British Army as a neutral force in the conflict, but rather as an oppressive force which disproportionately discriminated against and enacted violence upon Northern Irish Catholics. They will consider it indefensible for its members to receive priority treatment.
In fact, the tensions around the army are such that the two nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, the SDLP and Sinn Féin, have previously opposed the covenant being introduced in Northern Ireland amid fears it could amount to a breach of the Good Friday Agreement peace treaty.
It remains to be seen precisely how the £1bn will be spent and who the main beneficiaries will be. However, if the Conservatives had hoped that by waving cash at Northern Ireland they could secure an easy life, they will be sorely mistaken. Questions of bias in spending between Protestant and Catholic communities will likely follow the money every time it is spent.
Any suggestion of improper use will run the risk of raising sectarian tensions—and calling the ethics of the whole pact into question.