The morning of the 9th of June 2017 was one of strange mixed emotions for me. The day after the general election I woke up to see that despite the conservatives losing their majority, they would remain in power, all thanks to the ten votes they had acquired from the Democratic Unionist Party, including that of my own MP, Nigel Dodds. The only consolation I could find on that bleak morning was watching on Twitter as the population of mainland Briton woke up, glanced at the news and began googling what the hell this DUP thing was. ‘Theresa has given a billion quid to who?’ Unsurprising then that they did not like what they found. ‘Anti-gay marriage’, ‘Anti-Abortion’, ‘Climate Change Deniers’ where some of the policy headlines the search engine threw back at Britannia out of their smart phones, like a smack in bake. Where had this party come from? Why had they never heard of it? What was it doing propping up the British government?
The answers to these questions for a Northern Irishman are sadly obvious. The DUP have been around for decades, and for the last decade they have been the ruling party in Northern Ireland. As for nobody having heard of them, that was simply because nobody has had any reason to care about the wee outcrop of the UK, across the sea from Scotland. The last time anyone really cared was back in 1998, when The Troubles are said to have ended and peace finally came to the region after 30 years of bombs, bullets and bloodshed. Now, thrust back into the spotlight, its about time that someone tried to explain what the DUP are doing, and why their alliance with Theresa May’s government not only dooms the Brexit she was elected to deliver, but puts the fragile peace in Northern Ireland at risk of being undone.
The DUP were able to come to support the Tories for a number of reasons. You see, the DUP are essentially an NI version of the Conservative party, perhaps with a cup of Christian fundamentalism and a dash of bigotry thrown in. They were, therefore, delighted at an opportunity to keep the Tories in power while still bagging a win in the eyes of their electorate. An electorate much in need of a distraction from the tattered ruins the Northern Irish regional assembly, Stormont, is sitting in. Northern Ireland, back in September overtook the record held by Belgium for the longest time any country has gone without a government in peacetime. The Stormont assembly has now been lying empty for well over 600 days.
The assembly collapsed after a scandal involving a renewable heating scheme, know as RHI, which was altered from how it was run in the rest of the UK by removing payout caps. After the collapse of the assembly and the failure of post-election talks to reestablish power sharing, Northern Ireland was left without government, being run almost entirely by unelected civil servants struggling just to keep the lights on and the bills payed. The bitter truth, which is a damning indictment of just how dysfunctional Northern Irish politics is, is that you wouldn’t even notice the politicians weren’t there.
So why would I, as a Northern Irishman, think that a billion pound funding boost to Northern Ireland wasn’t fantastic news? Because the DUP-Tory ‘Confidence and Supply’ alliance should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. The corner stone of peace in Northern Ireland is the Good Friday agreement. The Irish and British governments are co-guarantors of the agreement and supposed to maintain some amount of neutrality as to allow them to mediate negotiations when power sharing fails. Good luck doing that when one of the most volatile parties in the province is the one you are relying on the keep you in power. The confidence and supply deal spits in the face of decades of progress to peace. Theresa and Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, are both fully aware of this.
Despite this indifference, it seems that the confidence and supply deal may prove to be the first nail in the coffin of any Brexit her government attempts to produce. It means that Theresa is surrounded on all sides by different groups who she cannot satisfy simultaneously. On one side is Arlene Foster, the woman in control of the DUP, holding the power to collapse the government, who outright rejects a border in the Irish Sea or any regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This is because Foster can sense the Northern Irish unionist greatest fears lurking on the horizon. A united Ireland. The good Friday agreement enshrines the right for the Northern Irish people to vote to join the Republic by referendum. This has never been much of a possibility given the bias towards status quo and the mainly unionist protestant majority in the country, but demographic figures show that the catholic, traditionally nationalist, population are increasing to the point that they could be in the majority by as early as 2021. Fail to please Arlene and Mrs May will be stuck with a minority government incapable of passing any brexit deal she achieves and an inevitable election on the horizon.
On another side, Theresa has Brexiters such as Boris Johnson who advocates a technological solution or Jacob Rees-Mogg, arguing that the Irish border can simply go back to how it was in the 70s during The Troubles. Such suggestions are pure fantasy. The idea of controlling and monitoring the border invisibly using tech is impossible. Along the 300 miles that the Irish border stretches the are more crossing points than the EU has with every country on its eastern side. There are points where cars can travel of across the border 4 times in 10 minutes of driving. There are roads which run along the border itself, so merely to overtake the tractor in front, a car must pull out into the Republic of Ireland only to pull back into the UK when past. As for Mr Moggs claims with regard to simply returning to a hard border with no fuss, I must caution against such wilful ignorance of the context of both the history of the border and the ever present threat of the undoing of the peace that was so difficult to build to begin with. Even in the recent months there has been incidents to remind us all how finely balanced NI is.
The Bogside area of Derry saw a week of riots and clashes in July, with petrol bombs and explosive devices hurled at police and a dissident fringe group calling itself the ‘New IRA’ claiming responsibility. To say the danger of returning to conflict in Northern Ireland is a statement of sheer ignorance of the fragility of the peace process. By creating border checkpoints, one must station UK checkpoint officers at it. This creates a target, which must be defended by armed officers just as border checkpoints were a constant target of republican terrorist attacks during the troubles. What comes through clearly in these ideas is the obvious disdain and disregard many Brexiters in Westminster have for the Northern Irish people, who they see merely as an irritant that should not be allowed to stand in the way of their Brexit. All this said, if the hard Brexiters are not appeased, May risks losing her party’s support, and her premiership. No win here either for Theresa.
On her final side Theresa stares down Donald Tusk and the EU, fully backing the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar and an Irish government who want no border on the island of Ireland. They hope to achieve this by means of a back stop which would keep Northern Ireland in the single market and customs union until a acceptable trade agreement has been reached. This directly opposes the position of the DUP, who have repeated condemned such an arrangement as unacceptable. Donald Tusk this week described all negotiating having to take place “In the tunnel”, fearing that any agreements made would dissolve the moment they saw the public light of day and the glaring eyes of Tory back benchers and DUP politicians alike. With the EU refusing to move onto trade talks until the issue of the border is resolved to the satisfaction of those in Dublin, May faces the possibility of reaching the exiting date with no trade deal, and a diplomatic nightmare of a border to deal with.
It would seem then that the government may be caught in a catch 22, less stuck between a rock and hard place, more stuck between a border and a bureaucratic place. What is left for Theresa May to decide is who she can afford to leave out in the cold. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but what does remain clear is that the Irish border, a topic which received so little airtime during the referendum debate itself, continues to be the pivotal issue defining the fate of Brexit.