DUBLIN, Ireland — There is growing unease in Ireland that negotiations to form a new minority government in Britain could have a negative impact on the fragile peace process in Northern Ireland.
The inconclusive outcome of last week’s British general election – with no party winning enough seats to form a majority in parliament – has left Prime Minister Theresa May reliant on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a Northern Ireland-based party that draws much of its support from hardline Protestants in the region and was, in fact, endorsed in the election by a group representing former Protestant paramilitaries.
Though the party rejected the endorsement, it nonetheless remains a fact that it is the party of choice of organisations that the police say are still actively involved in organised crime.
Both the Irish and British governments serve as co-guarantors of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to 30 years of sectarian killing in Northern Ireland.
The impressively even-handed approach taken by both governments has ensured that peace process has survived for almost 20 years, despite numerous crises.
Ireland’s incoming prime minister appeared to draw a line in the sand with May when he warned on June 13 that the British government cannot be “too close” to any particular party in Northern Ireland if it is to fulfill its commitments under the agreement to act as an equal broker.
Leo Varadkar said the governments in Dublin and London need to “recognise” their unique responsibilities under the agreement and that he will be reminding his British counterpart of these when they speak.
His predecessor Enda Kenny, who stepped down this week, telephoned May over the weekend to express his own fears over the effect a deal with the DUP would have on Northern Ireland.
The very real fear in Dublin is that when there is a political controversy in Northern Ireland, the British government – dependant as they would be on the DUP – would be pressured to align themselves with the political bedfellows, whatever the issue.
It’s not a fear without foundation. Talks are ongoing this week in Belfast between representatives of the DUP and Sinn Féin, which represents mostly Catholic nationalists, aimed at restoring the region’s power-sharing government which collapsed in January following accusations of a financial scandal allegedly involving senior members of the DUP.
How, the DUP’s political opponents wonder, could the British government credibly respond to such a scandal involving the party keeping May in power?
May’s negotiations with the DUP are also raising eyebrows because of the party’s deep roots in sectarianism. The DUP was founded in the early 1970s, an outgrowth of another party which opposed basic civil rights for Catholics such as the right to vote and the right to be treated fairly in terms of employment and public housing. The DUP opposed any power-sharing with the Catholic minority.
The founder of the DUP – the firebrand Protestant cleric Ian Paisley – frequently led counter-demonstrations that often turned violent in a bid to thwart peaceful civil rights protests.
Paisley mellowed down through the years and would eventually share power with Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly before his death in 2014, but he never recanted of his denunciation of all things Catholic.
When a Catholic Church was burnt to the ground by sectarian arsonists, Paisley suggested that the building actually went on fire because the local priests had been storing explosives on behalf of the Irish Republican Army.
He endlessly fretted that a rise in the Catholic population would lead to an end to Northern Ireland, and once remarked that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin.” You get the picture.
Another concern is the party’s ties to the paramilitary Ulster Defense Force (although these ties were never as strong as those between Sinn Fenn and the IRA.)
The DUP is now led by Arlene Foster, and has been rebranding itself to try to appear more appealing to Catholic voters. The party is staunchly pro-life and has consistently blocked moves to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
There is anecdotal evidence that this has led some socially conservative Catholics to switch their allegiance to the DUP. But no one really knows, because Northern Ireland is not the sort of place where one freely admits to voting for ‘the other side.’
There is a real fear now, however, amongst Catholics that the DUP may try to unravel some key agreements on issues like banning Protestant parades seen as triumphalist from Catholic areas. The party is also hostile towards ongoing inquiries into the deaths of Catholics at the hands of security forces during the conflict.
There’s a wider context, too, about the place of Northern Ireland within a country the official name of which is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
To what extent, one wonders, does the Great Britain part of the kingdom really understand the Northern Ireland part of it?
In Britain, many of the objections to the DUP playing a role in the UK government stem from a dislike of their conservative policies. But, criticisms of the DUP’s social policies and attitudes miss the mark, not least as their views are mainstream in Northern Ireland, where they took 36% of the vote in last week’s general election.
To deny them a place in government on the basis of their views is, in practice, to say that the Northern Irish have no place in the governance of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Looming large is the spectre of Brexit, since Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land border with the European Union, the region will be disproportionately affected by the imposition of any hard border between North and South.
On this, at least, Catholics might be more optimistic on the role of the DUP. While the latter did support Brexit, the party favors a somewhat softer Brexit than was May’s pre-election pledge.
If the election has softened her cough, she may well be more willing to listen to concerns from Northern Ireland about the effect of a “hard border,” involving customs and passport checks.
It would be paradoxical indeed, if it were the DUP that put an end to talk of toughening the dividing line on the island of Ireland.
Michael Kelly is Managing Editor of the Dublin-based The Irish Catholic newspaper and a writer and broadcaster in religious and social affairs.