I was genuinely annoyed yesterday with the decision of the Democratic Unionist Party to end the talks on reforming a Northern Ireland Assembly and their decision to request the British Government to restore Direct Rule in Northern Ireland. I thought it was worth trying to look at this solely from the perspective of the DUP and not from where I stand as a liberal and Irish nationalist.
It had seemed since last Friday that a deal was very close and that a compromise over a standalone Irish Language Act had been agreed (three Acts; Irish, Ulster-Scots and Culture under an umbrella Act).
However, plenty of unionist politicians and political commentators came out quite vehemently against this and the consensus is that this may have spooked Foster and her party leaders.
I think there may be more to it than this. A new Northern Ireland Assembly deal required compromise from both sides. It did involve potential acquiescence by the DUP on an Irish Language Act and also potentially on Marriage Equality.
Why does the DUP need to compromise though? They have the balance of power at Westminster with their ten seats so when they call for Direct Rule they will have an influence on the governing of Northern Ireland.
It is actually even more emphatic than this when we look closer at the 2017 General Election results. The DUP took ten of eighteen seats and with Sinn Fein abstaining from Westminster it leaves only one non-DUP MP from Northern Ireland, Lady Hermon in North Down.
I would be slightly concerned though if I was Arlene Foster. It now appears as if the ten MPs are the future of the party, particularly in the continued absence of an Assembly.
The RHI scandal still looms over the head of Foster (this was the original reason for the Assembly collapsing in the first place) and if the Inquiry leads a damning conclusion, she may even be quietly removed with a number of potential leaders from the MP pool.
Without an Assembly there will be no Irish Language Act or Marriage Equality Act in Northern Ireland, why would the Tories risk either when they need the support of the DUP.
Karen Bradley, the relatively new Northern Ireland secretary recently compared the issue of Marriage Equality to broadband, deeming both devolved issues;
“It will be a matter for the elected politicians in Northern Ireland to make a decision about equal marriage,” ... “That’s not for me to impose, in the same way it’s not for me to impose the way that super-fast broadband is rolled out across the country.”
If the DUP cross the Rubicon and decide that the Northern Ireland Assembly is no longer needed (for now they have just suggested that a return won’t be happening in the short to midterm) they will leave nationalists without any representation in a local or British parliament.
There is very little possibility of Sinn Fein taking their seats at Westminster, even if their continued absence hurts their constituents. Equally, Sinn Fein are in such a position of dominance over their main nationalist rival, the SDLP, that there isn’t much possibility of SDLP getting any seats at the next Westminster election.
The Good Friday Agreement does call for the Republic of Ireland to have a role in overseeing the implementation of the agreement but it is hard to see how this could become joint authority or joint governance.
Unless the Irish government makes some concrete form of joint rule a red line for approving the UK’s Brexit Deal (which is highly unlikely) than it leaves nationalists almost completely out in the cold. The Irish government will most likely focus on the border and even this will require a lot of work and compromise with the British government, leaving little leverage for pushing for a more direct role in managing NI affairs.
This is probably not the consensus view of the next few years and there is every chance that a deal will still be agreed at some point in 2018.
There is every chance that this could lead to a massive backlash against the DUP in the next Westminster election as many citizens place the blame on the lack of progress, economic or social, in the state.
Alternatively, many potential voters may be so disillusioned by the time the next election rolls around that the opposition parties may not be able to rally a large turnout. A low turnout would almost certainly favour the DUP.
In my view, this success of the DUP’s decision to effectively shut down Stormont for the foreseeable future will be determined by when the next UK General election is called. If it is as late as 2022 (as the bookies currently believe) then they are effectively the only voice in Northern Ireland politics with actual power. The latest date for the next election is May 2022, that’s a staggering fifty one months of dominance.
However, if the UK govt falls in the short to midterm, which may be possible given the internal Tory turmoil, the DUP may lose some seats and not hold the Westminster majority after the election.
I haven’t touched upon Brexit or demographics in this article (I covered it here quite recently) as this has been extensively covered and wanted to try and understand the DUP’s mentality and decision making.
They are often lampooned by the media and their strategic direction and intelligence questioned but when I took a cold, analytical look at where both major parties stand, the DUP seem to be in a much stronger position without Stormont…