Pact with the devil?
Will a deal with the DUP mean an end to the so-called peace process? Anne McShane investigates
Theresa May’s reliance on the Democratic Unionist Party’s 10 MPs has led to claims that she has entered a pact with the equivalent of the Taliban or Islamic State. Some have even predicted that same-sex marriage and abortion rights in Britain will be under serious threat and thousands have signed an online petition demanding that the Tories step away from a coalition with bigots and homophobes. Former Labour Party spin doctor Alastair Campbell has denounced Theresa May for putting the Good Friday agreement (GFA) at risk through “a sordid, dangerous, distasteful deal”. Tory grandees like Kenneth Clarke and John Major have joined the fray, with warnings of severe ramifications from the ‘confidence and supply’ deal, and urging May to open talks with other parties.
Missing from this debate is a sense of reality. The DUP has appeared like a bolt from the blue in UK politics, when in fact it shared power with Sinn Féin in Stormont for 10 years until March of this year. Before that, of course, its deceased founder, Ian Paisley, was an extremely prominent personality, propagating a blend of Presbyterian fundamentalism and an overwhelming antagonism towards Northern Irish Catholics that bordered on the obsessive. His was the only party in Northern Ireland to oppose the GFA - current leader Arlene Foster was herself a former member of the Ulster Unionist Party, but defected to the DUP in 2003 in protest at the GFA. Warmly welcomed into the fold by Paisley, she shares many of his fundamentalist views. In 2015 she demanded (unsuccessfully) that same-sex couples from Northern Ireland be prevented from marrying in Scotland. In the same year she became party leader.
Foster’s hostility towards republicanism is far sharper than that of her predecessor, Peter Robinson, and even that of Paisley in later life - remember the ‘chuckle brothers’ and the friendship with Martin McGuinness when they were first minister and deputy? It was expected that, as a member of the Church of Ireland and ex-member of the UUP, she would continue the process of compromise apparently central to the GFA. However, she took the opposite stance and refused to extend the hand of friendship to McGuinness. She is described as a difficult woman, whose belligerence has inflamed the inbuilt antagonisms between the two communities.
But, while Foster’s personality no doubt plays a role, it is her dedication to traditional loyalism which is the key to her intransigence. Here is an ideology which predates the Six Counties. It has its antecedents in the colonial plantations of the 17th century, when the rebellious Gaels were driven off the land and replaced by Scottish Protestant farmers. The settlers unsurprisingly feared and despised the natives. They saw their own survival as wholly contingent on the continuation of rule from Westminster and their continued protection by the crown. Loyalism is born from dispossession and colonial rule.
Ian Paisley was simply one of a long line of evangelical sectarians who fed this siege mentality with histrionic depictions of the peril posed by republicanism. With the launch of the IRA’s failed 1956-62 border campaign he was amongst those who helped form Ulster Protestant Action - a vigilante organisation armed to defend British-Irish privileges and ensure the continuation of gerrymandering and dominance of loyalists in local government.
As the founder of the Free Presbyterian Church, he stoked up intolerance in thundering sermons and speeches. And, when Catholics rose up against their institutionalised repression in the late 1960s, Paisley and others worked with loyalist paramilitary groups, including the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association, to hold the line against the demands for civil rights. Such was the paranoia about being swamped by the ‘taigs’ that the UDA released a document calling for the repartition of Ireland to create a wholly Protestant Ulster. Sammy Wilson, a future DUP Stormont minister, called it a “valuable return to reality” and lauded the UDA for “contemplating what needs to be done to maintain our separate Ulster identity”.
As the main opposition to the GFA, the DUP built on the sense of siege and fear among Protestant voters. On July 12 2006 at an Orange Order march in Portrush, Paisley declared that Sinn Féin was “not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there”.1 Ten months later he was sitting alongside Martin McGuinness in the Stormont administration. The fact that Paisley’s intransigence had given way to compromise in such a relatively short time reflects the recognition that the GFA could not be beaten.
But it did not mean an end to sectarianism. In fact Stormont is an example of how the GFA hardened the institutional divisions between the two communities. MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) have to designate themselves ‘nationalist’, ‘unionist’ or ‘other’. Important resolutions cannot be passed unless they have ‘cross-community’ support. Despite the election of a People before Profit MLA, there has been no shift in the political culture within the assembly. Outside Stormont, bodies like the Parades Commission, set up under the GFA to settle disputes during the Orange Order marching season, have also found themselves mired in disagreements. Conflicts almost inevitably flare up every July and the marching season is a time of intense fear for Catholic communities.
The divisions along nationalist and loyalist lines were reflected even more vividly in the general election, with the DUP emerging as the clear winner among Protestant voters, with 10 seats. However Sinn Féin also increased its seats by three, taking its total to seven. The UUP and the Social Democratic and Labour Party both lost out completely. When Stormont is reconvened, the DUP will be in a strong position ... because the Westminster government relies on its votes. This despite March’s Northern Ireland election triggered by the ‘cash for ash’ scandal when the DUP lead over Sinn Féin fell from 10 to just one. The DUP now holds 28 seats and Sinn Féin 27. The significance of this lies in the fact that it is the biggest party which gets the position of first minister. The second party, if it is designated ‘nationalist’, gets the deputy.
The question of Brexit will be central to the outcome of the pact. Although the DUP campaigned for a ‘leave’ vote, Northern Ireland voted by 55.7% to remain. However, the DUP never supported a hard Brexit. Foster has argued that she does not want any restrictions on exports to the Irish republic or any weakening of tourism initiatives - the cross-border bodies set up to promote joint economic activity should not be undermined.
The Irish government is likewise pushing hard to make sure that Brexit does not affect its relationship with Northern Ireland and Britain. Various TDs have condemned Sinn Féin for refusing to break with its abstentionism. They have insisted that it has a duty to take up its seats in Westminster and prevent a Brexit coalition of the Tories and DUP. But Sinn Féin has refused to countenance such an action. Gerry Adams has made it clear that his party is not interested in operating in the UK parliament. Its focus is on continuing to win ground both north and south to secure a united Ireland through constitutional means.
There is no doubt that there will be fresh conflicts in the north because of the Tory-DUP pact. However, it is very unlikely that Sinn Féin will abandon the assembly. In fact it has already called for the recommencement of talks for its re-establishment. With representation almost on a par with the DUP and strong support behind it, Sinn Féin will campaign against British government interference in Northern Ireland. Outside of Stormont it can be expected that the tensions will spill over into the marching season.
But I very much doubt that it signals an end to the GFA despite the concerns of many on the left. The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in Ireland, along with many other groups, portrayed the British government initiative in 1998 as a step forward. They refused to acknowledge that it was a rearticulation of imperialist rule in Ireland. Yes, the majority voted for it to make the ceasefire permanent, some perhaps hoping that it would bring about integration. But, while the GFA has seen an end to ‘the troubles’, it has cemented sectarianism. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are still as divided as ever