When Theresa May’s Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority in the U.K. general election on June 8, the Prime Minister had to find a friendly party to partner with to get legislation passed.
May turned to Northern Ireland’s leading Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to forge a coalition agreement. She had likely hoped for a speedy consensus to be reached but negotiations dragged on into June, with the DUP proving to be adept bargainers. On Monday, the parties agreed to support May’s minority government through a deal which will bring more than £1 billion extra funding to Northern Ireland for infrastructure.
The drawn-out negotiations and eventual alliance between the two parties had already brought international attention to the region. This part of the United Kingdom is still divided between those who wish to remain within the union—like the DUP—and those who believe it should be a part of Ireland, like their main rivals Sinn Fein.
That split brought years of strife to this corner of the country, which only twenty years ago gave way to a tenuous peace. Now, the DUP’s newfound political influence has increased fears of instability in this highly volatile region.
The Brexit vote of 2016 had already fueled sectarian splits in Northern Ireland. The DUP campaigned for Britain to leave the E.U, and Sinn Fein backed the remain campaign. Accordingly, in the Northern Ireland village of Crossmaglen, close to the border with the Republic of Ireland, the Irish flag and the E.U. flag fly side-by-side, a clear message of where this community’s allegiances lie. On the other side of the village square, yellow and black signs make a bold statement “border communities against Brexit. Respect the remain vote,” they declare.
Northern Ireland voted by a majority of 56-44% to remain in the E.U. — but now a party which campaigned for a leave vote is at the heart of government in Westminster. Some in Crossmaglen are concerned. “We don’t want to leave the E.U,” said Ellen Watters, a local pharmacist. “The majority of the people in this neighborbood especially, we want to be as close as possible and leaving is not ideal for us.”
Border towns like Crossmaglen stand to be directly affected by Brexit. Once Britain leaves the E.U. in April 2019, the 310-mile border between North and South would be the only land border between the U.K. and the E.U. It seems likely that some form of checks will have to return to control trade and restrict immigration. This stirs up bad memories for the residents of Crossmaglen. During the Troubles, as the conflict is called here, this was known as “bandit country”, a hotbed for republican activity, and heavily militarized by the British Army. Crossmaglen lived under the shadow of a military base, set up on the grounds of the local gaelic football club.
The Good Friday Agreement sealed by leaders of the U.K., Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in 1997 brought peace, stability, and much-needed economic development. A border once demarcated by watchtowers and manned by soldiers has completely disappeared. Now trade and people flow freely across both jurisdictions, bringing revenue to a once isolated and marginalized area.
While the DUP campaigned for a leave vote in the Brexit referendum, their position on the issue is somewhat complicated and even contradictory. Ideologically, the DUP are Euroskeptic and have leaned towards a “hard” version of Brexit — which would pull the U.K. out of the E.U’s single market and customs union. However, they have also said they want to maintain the current border arrangements with the South, knowing that any reintroduction of a border will have a negative impact on the region economically.
Even within the DUP’s unionist community, many voted against their position on Brexit. “There’s no way the DUP can represent [Northern Ireland’s views],” said J J O’Hara, a member of the Border Communities Against Brexit campaign group. “The reality is there are a lot of people even within the DUP who want to stay in Europe and who see the sense in Europe.”
The DUP played hardball in negotiations with the Conservative Party, who had been hoping to put together a deal quickly in the wake of the snap election. The “confidence and supply” deal — a deal by which the DUP would pledge to vote with the Conservatives on votes of confidence, and on spending bills — gives May a working majority in parliament of 13.
It’s certainly not a bad deal for many in Northern Ireland. As well as investment in infrastructure, the agreement gives the region greater attention in Brexit negotiations. Hopes that a border may not be reintroduced were bolstered this week when the British government’s Brexit Secretary David Davis said that the government wants to maintain an “invisible border” in Ireland. “It’s technically difficult but doable,” he said on radio in the U.K. on Sunday.
However, many in the region are not happy given the DUP’s anti-Brexit stance, the only party in the region to have campaigned to leave the EU. During the negotiations, May met with Sinn Fein and representatives from other Northern Ireland parties at Downing Street and was told by Gerry Adams that she is in breach of the Good Friday Agreement.
Adams’ comments reflect wider concerns about the implications a deal between the DUP and the Conservatives will have for the shaky political landscape in Northern Ireland.
Some figures who had involvement in the peace process have spoken out warning that it is important the British government remains impartial in relation to politics in the North and the deal with the DUP risks jeopardising that. Former British Prime Minister John Major urged Theresa May to pull out of the deal with the DUP. Speaking on the BBC, he said that the peace process in Northern Ireland is fragile and “people shouldn’t regard it as a given, it isn’t certain.”
Politically Northern Ireland is in crisis and since January, the region has been without the power-sharing government formed under the Good Friday Agreement. Under the terms of the deal, both sides of the political divide — the predominantly Protestant unionists and the mainly Catholic nationalists republicans — hold equal positions in power. But the alliance crumbled in 2016, as distrust between the DUP and Sinn Fein grew, and collapsed completely in December after the Sinn Fein deputy first minister resigned as a result of a political scandal involving DUP leader Arlene Foster surrounding a costly renewable energy subsidy scheme.
The subsequent election saw bitter political divisions resurface. The results — with Sinn Fein on a near-equal footing with the DUP — reflect what has been described as the Balkanisation of the region, with the more moderate voices on both sides being pushed out. “It may very well be the case that the DUP will basically rule over their geographical areas and Sinn Fein will in effect rule over their particular geographic area and that is not a good thing for the future if we are to bring people together,” said Dermot Ahern, a former minister for foreign affairs in the Republic of Ireland who was involved in the peace process. “It reflects that Northern Ireland is still very much under the surface a divided society,” he told TIME.
Negotiations are continuing to form a power-sharing government with a deadline of June 29 looming large. If the two main parties haven’t reached agreement to restore a devolved power-sharing government, there will likely be a return to direct rule from Westminster.
The details of a deal between the DUP and the Conservatives is something that has been troubling nationalists and Northern Ireland and the government across the border in the Republic of Ireland, given that the negotiations to restore the power-sharing institutions in the North are ongoing. There are worries that the DUP would leverage its new negotiating position in Westminster to strengthen its hand in the talks on power sharing or may make demands on sectarian issues such as disputes on Northern Ireland’s unionist and nationalist parades. “There must be full and detailed transparency on all aspects of a confidence-and-supply deal,” Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said on June 12. May has attempted to quell concerns by saying she would publish full details of any deal.
Back in Northern Ireland in South West Fermanagh, farmer John Sheridan’s land meets the border and part of it is even technically in the South. He is from the unionist community but voted to remain in the E.U. given the potentially devastating impacts of Brexit on agriculture. The DUP deal “may be good in the short term for the economy of the north,” he said. But he added that given the majority anti-Brexit vote, “I think their actions are not in the interests of the North.”
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