DUP’s Ascent in Westminister and Renewed Political Instability In Belfast

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 5, No. 7, August 2017

By Arindrajit Basu

As the United Kingdom attempts to recover from the fall-out of Theresa May’s failed gamble via an artificial ‘confidence and supply’[i] arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, we must consider what this billion pound deal[ii] means for the immediate future of the ‘troubled’ devolved Parliament in Stormont.

United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May meets with Arlene Foster, head of the Democratic Unionist Party.

The DUP is one of two Unionist Parties (the other being the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party that failed to secure any seats this election) in Northern Ireland that are supported by the Protestant majority in the region and seek to keep Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. Known for its socially conservative agenda[iii], which includes opposition to gay rights and abortion, the DUP has governed Northern Ireland in a power-sharing arrangement with Sinn Fein – one of the two nationalist parties that represent the Catholic minority in the region and seek an alliance with the Republic of Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement brokered in 1998 between the various factions in Northern Ireland, Great Britain, and the Republic of Ireland, has brought relative peace and stability to the region.[iv] It ended a period of concerted violence, known as ‘The Troubles’ that were orchestrated by the nationalist Irish Republican Army and Unionist Paramilitaries.[v] The first half of this year, however, has seen a complete breakdown of governance in Northern Ireland, which is left without a functioning government since January.[vi] Further, the results of the Brexit referendum, which the residents of Northern Ireland staunchly opposed has resulted in intrepid voices regaining might in their call for secession from the United Kingdom and union with the Republic of Ireland. The arrangement between the DUP and Theresa May’s minority government may have some potent ramifications on the region.


The legacy of The Good Friday Agreement

The conflict in Northern Ireland revolved around the six districts that were at the heart of simmering tensions between the Catholics and the Protestants.[vii] A key argument for Irish nationalists was that gerrymandering processes had led to the further marginalization of the Catholics, thereby leading to limited political representation in the Parliament in Stormont.[viii] From the 1960s, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had undertaken a violent campaign of bombing both in London and parts of Northern Ireland, including Belfast in order to coerce the British government into yielding to their demand of a united Ireland. The political wing of the IRA lead by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness, was known as Sinn Fein. They believed in armed uprising for the cause of a unified Ireland. The Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), led by John Hume also represented the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland but were more moderate in their approach and strictly opposed the use of armed force.

Attempts at securing lasting peace were made during the Sunningdale Talks with the Unionists, the Republic of Ireland and the SDLP in 1973.[ix] While there were attempts to assure the Catholics of legitimate political representation by creating North-South institutions with the Republic of Ireland that would co-operate both on cross-border security and constitutionally resolving the question of Irish nationalism, the IRA remained largely dissatisfied with the results, not least because they were not invited to be a stakeholder in the peace negotiations.[x] There were no safeguards to ensure that the demands for a unified Ireland would be put into action.

The second major event in the peace process was the Anglo-Irish Declaration of 1985[xi] signed between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Irish counterpart, Garrett Fitzgerald. The agreement recognized two crucial points which would serve as the backbone for all future negotiations. First, was the ‘consent principle,’[xii] which essentially meant that Northern Ireland would not leave the United Kingdom unless a majority of its population agreed to do so- a crucial safeguard for the Unionists. The second was giving more leverage to Dublin in terms of day-to-day administration. Despite these safeguards, the agreement was not enough to satisfy completely either the IRA or the Unionist paramilitaries who continued to engage in frequent tit-for-tat bombings in pubs and market places.

The negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement thus came at a crucial time for the United Kingdom. Negotiations started with back-channel talks initiated by British Civil servants with the IRA in the early 1990s. These talks lead to the Downing Street Declaration in 1993 jointly issued by British PM John Major and his Irish counterpart Albert Reynolds.[xiii] The Downing Street Declaration re-emphasized the joint desire of both parties to work towards a sustainable solution for Northern Ireland without neglecting the consent principle that was to be enshrined in the Irish Constitution. Following further back channel talks, the IRA unilaterally declared a ceasefire in 1994. Due to a period of relative inaction on part of the British government, this ceasefire was violated again in 1995 with a major bombing in London. Finally, in 1997, under the leadership of US Senator George Mitchell, all-party talks commenced in anticipation of an agreement that sought to end to the Troubles once and for all.

Negotiations were not easy to start off with. The Unionists did not want Sinn Fein to be a part of the talks.[xiv] The DUP lead by Ian Paisley walked out of the negotiations in protest. Further, the UUP and Sinn Fein did not directly engage with each other officially during the negotiations thus compelling the SDLP and the interlocutors from London to play mediator. The talks started on three strands.[xv] The first strand regarding the government in Northern Ireland, the second regarding relations between North and South Ireland and finally Strand III on relationships between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Simply put, the Agreement entailed that the nationalists had to give up overt demands for a united Ireland in exchange for increased political capital in Stormont while the Unionists had to be less rigid in their opposition to influence from the Catholic minority in local governance. Despite the DUP walkout, the Protestants seemed content to be represented by Trimble’s UUP and largely agreed with the terms of the agreement.

In a referendum in 1998, the agreement passed with a clear majority of 56%-44% in Northern Ireland despite finding favour only among 53% of the Unionists.[xvi] The ostensible representation of the various factions in the negotiations was enough to push the agreement through, although the outcome may not have been ideal for any of the parties involved. While the content of the agreement had barely been altered since Sunningdale, the mechanism through which the talks progressed was the crucial game-changer that resulted in peace in the region and the Nobel Peace Prize for its architects-Trimble and Hume. The devolved Parliament at Stormont started its work with David Trimble, head of the UUP as its First Minister and Seamus Mallon of the SDLP as his Deputy.[xvii]


The Troubles Return?

Despite not being a part of the Good Friday Talks in 1998, DUP’s gains at the ballot box saw it entering the devolved Parliament in Stormont in 2007 with Ian Paisley becoming First Minister. By then Sinn Fein had also made electoral gains at the expense of SDLP, which meant that Martin McGuiness served as Deputy to his onetime foe.[xviii] Displaying their abilities as competent administrators, the duo served peacefully together. The goodwill continued even after Peter Robinson took over from Paisley in 2008

Things started going awry in 2016 when Robinson’s successor and present DUP leader, Arlene Foster was implicated in a £400 million scandal[xix] that involved the government handing out money to companies for fraudulent renewable fuel purchases. This lead to McGuiness’s resignation from Stormont in January and calls for an early election. McGuiness passed away in March just after Sinn Fein made historic gains in the Assembly elections[xx] where they won 27 of the 90 seats in the Parliament, just one short of the DUP’s 28. Talks to revive devolved governance resumed on June 19th but are yet to make a great deal of progress.[xxi]

Political scandal was further compounded by the results of Brexit. 56% of Northern Ireland and 85% of its Catholic population voted Remain despite the DUP campaigning for the Brexiteers.[xxii] The Brexit referendum results prompted Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams to demand another referendum on Irish unity as he felt that Northern Ireland was being left behind by politics in London.[xxiii] Sealing of the porous border with the Republic of Ireland would imply economic and political losses for working-class Catholics. Further, as pointed out by Adams[xxiv] an exit from the European Union has grave human rights implications for Northern Ireland. All residents of Northern Ireland are entitled to Irish and therefore, EU citizenship which Brexit may jeopardize. Threats to take Britain out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights potentially abuses the progressive values that served as the edifice of The Good Friday Agreement.

Impact of May’s June debacle

Sinn Fein also performed remarkably well in the national elections this yearamassing a tally of seven seats, three more than it had won in 2015.[xxv] Of course, Sinn Fein refuses to pledge allegiance to the Queen and symbolically abstains from taking up its seats in Westminister. The policy of abstentionism may be tested this time around given that the SDLP absence in Westminister and a DUP presence in the minority government might result in an open goal for Unionist policies getting parliamentary sanction. However, thus far the seven elected MPs show no intention of taking up their seats in the House of Commons.[xxvi]

Adams has expressed support for the one billion pound payout promised to Northern Ireland through the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement over the next two years. [xxvii]He argued that institutions in Northern Ireland have been reeling due to austerity measures. However, he further stressed that the money should be given to the Executive who must use it in a fair and transparent manner.

However, he has also been openly critical of the alliance the DUP has forged with ‘The English Tories’[xxviii] and stated that Sinn Fein will be in touch[xxix] with the incoming Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in a bid to solidify the nationalist position. The Good Friday Agreement was negotiated with the understanding that the people of Northern Ireland were the only stakeholders in deciding their future and both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom had to stay neutral in the matter.

Legal challenges

The requirement of neutrality has been underscored by various commentators, including former Prime Minister John Major[xxx], who was one of the architects of The Good Friday Agreement. Ciarran Mclean of the Green Party has mounted a legal challenge[xxxi] to this deal as violating the provisions of The Good Friday Agreement. As per the terms of the treaty, the government in Westminster must “with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions.”[xxxii]

The text of the agreement between the DUP and the Tories clarifies that “the DUP will have no involvement in the UK government’s role in political talks in Northern Ireland.” [xxxiii]However, just a page before this line, the same agreement states that “The Conservative Party will never be neutral in expressing its support for the Union. As the UK government we believe that Northern Ireland’s interests is based serve within the United Kingdom.” In the same paragraph, it goes on to uphold the consent principle. This contradictory compilation of sentences appears ominous on first glance for the interests of Catholics in Northern Ireland. In the absence of an explicit declaration, re-affirming the UK government’s neutrality, a mere pledge of non-interference fails to indicate anything substantive. Apart from Sinn Fein, the deal has angered politicians in Scotland and Wales, who believe that[xxxiv] the promise of a billion pounds to Northern Ireland is nothing more than a bribe at the cost of other devolved nations. From a policy-maker’s point of view this arrangement seems to be living up to be the ‘coalition of chaos’[xxxv] that Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn predicted it would be.

However for now it appears that the coalition is here to stay, at least temporarily. It is crucial in the short run that Sinn Fein works towards getting the Stormont government up and running to counter incremental DUP presence in Westminster. Even if they stop short of taking seats in Westminster, Adams should ensure that a newly energised Labour Opposition ensures that the final Brexit package has something in it for Northern Ireland. A possible suggestion may be carving out a special status for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom that allows it to retain its access to the single market and the porous border with the Republic of Ireland. Adams must also tone down rhetoric on an Irish referendum, which May is unlikely to nod assent to given the tumultuous political waters she finds herself in. Bellicose rhetoric may lead to the DUP responding in kind by manipulating its position to drag Westminster back into the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The DUP should also tread carefully. Disappointments over Brexit results and the ongoing crisis over governance in Stormont means that tensions are simmering in Northern Ireland with Sinn Fein closer than ever before to governing Stormont. Any policy that ostensibly threatens the finely crafted compromises of The Good Friday agreement may result in agitations and more dangerously-violence.

The Good Friday Agreement has since been hailed as a beacon for negotiating peace agreements. Jose Manual Santos relied closely on the lessons[xxxvi]learned from the Irish Peace Process when negotiating his own deal with FARC. A breakdown would spell disaster-not only for the region but also for the strategic value it holds for conflict zones all around the globe. This present impasse can be navigated by all parties through dialogue and a mutual determination to compromise provided the dialogue extends to more than a lump-sum payout. A carefully negotiated outcome built around the foundations of The Good Friday Agreement may see Stormont weather yet another political storm.

About the Author: Arindrajit Basu is a lawyer and graduate of The West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata and will pursue a LLM in International Law at The University of Cambridge in 2017/18.



[i] ‘ What is the Conservative-DUP deal’, 26 Jun2017,Express,http://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/821370/Conservative-DUP-deal-what-is-Tory-DUP-deal-with-Conservatives-in-full-latest

[ii] ‘Tory-DUP deal: The Agreement in Full,’ 26 Jun 2017, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/tory-dup-deal-agreement-full/

[iii] ‘Who are the DUP and what do they stand for? Full 2017 manifesto policies from the Democratic Unionist Party’,26 Jun 2017,The Mirror,http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/who-dup-what-policies-mean-10589910?service=responsive

[iv] ‘The Good Friday Agreement;BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/good_friday_agreement

[v] Graham Dawson, Stephen Hopkins and Jo Dover, The Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain: Impact, Engagement, Legacies and Memories (Manchester University Press,2016)

[vi] ‘What is Stormont, how many seats do Sinn Fein and the DUP hold in the Northern Ireland Assembly and why has it not sat since January 2017?’,26 Jun 2017, The Sun,https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/3780297/stormont-seats-dup-sinn-fein-northern-ireland-assembly/

[vii] ‘The Good Friday Agreement;BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/good_friday_agreement

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Gordon Gillespie,’The Sunningdale Agreement: Lost opportunity or an agreement too far?,’ 19 Oct 2007, Irish Political Studies, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07907189808406585

[x] Ibid

[xi] ‘The Troubles,’ BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/troubles

[xii] Roger Mac Ginty, Rick Wilford, Lizanne Dowds, Gillian Robinson, ‘ Consenting Adults: The Principle of Consent and Northern Ireland’s Constitutional Future,’ Oct 2001,Government and Opposition: An International Journal of Comparative Politics,nelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1477-7053.00077/abstract

[xiii] The Troubles,’ BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/troubles

[xiv] Michael Joseph DeBraggio, “Implementing The Good Friday Agreement: Overcoming Challenges and Obstacles” (2010 Honor’s Theses. Paper 25),http://digitalcommons.bucknell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1024&context=honors_theses

[xv] Joanne McEvoy, Politics of Northern Ireland,( Edinburgh University Press,2008)pp.133

[xvi] ‘EU Referendum-Northern Ireland chooses to Remain’, 24 Jun 2016,BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-36614443

[xvii] ‘ 2 Ulster Peacemakers win the Nobel Peace Prize,’ Oct 7 1998, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/17/world/2-ulster-peacemakers-win-the-nobel-prize.html

[xviii] ‘Paisley and McGuiness sworn in as power-sharing revived’, 8 May 2007, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/may/08/northernireland.northernireland4

[xix] ‘Timeline:Renewable Heat Incentive scandal’ 25 Jan 2017, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-38301428

[xx] ‘ NI Election 2017’,BBC World News, http://www.bbc.com/news/election/ni2017/results

[xxi] Northern Ireland power-sharing talks on course for failure’, 28 Jun 2017, The Guardian, ps://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/28/northern-ireland-power-sharing-talks-on-course-for-failure-sinn-fein-dup

[xxii] How Northern Ireland voted in the EU referendum–and what it means for border talks’,27 Apr 2017, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/how-northern-ireland-voted-in-the-eu-referendum-and-what-it-means-for-border-talks-76677

[xxiii] ‘Life on the edge: How Brexit will affect the Northern Irish border’, 15 Apr 2017, The Guardian,https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/apr/15/brexit-northern-irish-border

[xxiv] ‘Northern Ireland’s EU exit will destory peace deal, says Gerry Adams’, 21 Jan 2017, The Guardian,https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jan/21/northern-irelands-eu-exit-will-destroy-peace-deal-says-gerry-adams

[xxv] ‘ Election results 2017: DUP and Sinn Fein celebrate election gains,’ 9 Jun 2017,BBC News,http://www.bbc.com/news/election-2017-40208320

[xxvi]‘ Unseated:the Sinn Fein MPs whose absence strengthens May’s hand in Commons’,13 Jun 2017,The Guardian,https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/13/sinn-fein-mps-house-of-commons-theresa-may-dup

[xxvii] ‘Legal challenge made against possible DUP deal with Tories’, 22 Jun 2017, The Guardian,https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/22/legal-challenge-made-against-possible-dup-deal-with-tories

[xxviii] ‘Gerry Adams: Tories and DUP will be ‘coalition for chaos”, 12 Jun 2017, ITV News,http://www.itv.com/news/2017-06-12/gerry-adams-tories-and-dup-will-be-coalition-for-chaos/

[xxix] ‘ Gerry Adams: Referendum on Irish unity now inevitable after General Election results’, Jun 9 2017,Belfast Telegraph, http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/gerry-adams-referendum-on-irish-unity-now-inevitable-after-general-election-results-35809433.html

[xxx] ‘John Major warns Tory-DUP deal could undermine ‘fragile’ Northern Ireland peace process’,13 Jun 2017,The Telegraph,http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/13/sir-john-major-warns-tory-dup-deal-could-undermine-fragile-northern/

[xxxi] ‘Legal challenge made against possible DUP deal with Tories’, 22 Jun 2017, The Guardian,https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/22/legal-challenge-made-against-possible-dup-deal-with-tories

[xxxii] Ibid

[xxxiii] ‘Tory-DUP deal: The Agreement in Full,’ 26 Jun 2017, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/tory-dup-deal-agreement-full/

[xxxiv] ‘ Theresa May faces backlash from Scotland and Wales over £1bn Tory-DUP deal’, 26 Jun 2017, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/26/tories-and-the-dup-reach-deal-to-prop-up-minority-government

[xxxv] ‘ Corbyn looks forward to May’s ‘coalition of chaos”, 13 Jun 2017, The Guardian,http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/13/corbyn-looks-forward-mays-coalition-chaos/

[xxxvi] ‘ Why the Colombia peace agreement failed, and what we can expect now’, 14 Oct 2016, The Washington Post,https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/04/why-the-colombia-peace-agreement-failed-and-what-we-can-expect-now/?utm_term=.5611026ea2ae