WHO would have thought it possible? That a desperate Theresa May, successor to a long line of national leaders – William Pitt, Gladstone, Disraeli, Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and others – should turn to an unsavoury collection of Six County sectarian rabble-rousers in order to keep herself and her government in power.
Not even a horribly bad writer of political fiction could have devised such a creaky plot: a gangly Tory leader decides to wipe out her political opponents. She calls a general election but the results are so bad that the only people who can save her is the North’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), an organisation accused of having links to shadowy loyalist gangs.
And while in Britain the catastrophic election leaves Ms May up the proverbial creek without a paddle and suddenly the butt of a million jokes, in the Six Counties the election is seen as a traumatic event. It is as if an electric current passed through the entire Northern body politic, inducing a state of physical shock that damaged in the process the Good Friday Agreement.
And here’s the reason why: Talks involving the British government and the North’s main political factions started this week. The purpose of the talks is to restore the devolved executive at Stormont and to re-establish the Six County government on a firmer base in the wake of the DUP’s ‘Cash for Ash’ financial scandal. This is serious stuff.
Stormont was suspended in January when Sinn Féin refused to work with the DUP after allegations that First Minister Arlene Foster personally campaigned to ensure a government-backed renewable-energy scheme remained in place despite it overspending by €455m (£400m).
Foster was unwilling to step aside while an investigation was carried out and, since then, the political situation in the North has been uncertain, unstable and with no indication of progress or improvement.
Alastair Campbell, a former advisor to the Labour government that brokered the Good Friday Agreement, described a Tory-DUP coalition as ‘sordid, dangerous and distasteful.’ He warned that, if Theresa May refuses to behave as a neutral broker, the peace process will self-destruct.
‘How can our government be a mediator when the DUP is going to be part of government?’ Campbell asked.
He’s right, and what’s more, should Theresa May show favouritism towards her new DUP chums, the move could be contrary to Article 1 of the Good Friday Agreement. This states that the UK and Irish governments must act with ‘rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions.’
Some constitutional lawyers are suggesting that a case can be made for a judicial review of the DUP-Tory (British government) coalition on the grounds that it violates the Good Friday Agreement. A judicial review is a legal procedure whereby the courts investigate the exercise of power by a public body on the basis that its action might be unlawful.
The argument goes that the Tory-DUP alliance complicates all negotiations relating to the North and sets the scene for a political environment in which it will take a miracle for Theresa May not to be free from favouritism. There are fears that she will be unable to remain neutral towards her government’s coalition partner, given that she will rely on their support to keep her shaky grip on power.
The implications are worrying because discussions intended to produce consensus under the Good Friday Agreement will be held in the shadow of renewed loyalist activity, and the reality of open links between these thugs and the DUP.
A destabilisation of the peace process is inevitable if a Tory-DUP government throws its weight around instead of acting as ‘a fair referee’ in implementing the Good Friday Agreement.
The alienation of nationalists will follow while discrimination, corruption, injustice, and violence could well become the order of the day.
Murder most foul
Republicans have taken the gun out of politics but the same cannot be said of the Ulster Defence Association. Just weeks ago, it murdered a man in broad daylight, in front of his three year old son and horrified shoppers. He was the victim of a UDA-linked feud. At around the same time, the UDA declared publicly that it supported the DUP in the general election and urged voters to back certain candidates.
And although we are in no way suggesting that the DUP-ers sought endorsement for their candidates from assassins, or that the DUP agreed with the murderous, gangland activities of the UDA, it is a fact that party leader Arlene Foster met a UDA leader within 48 hours of the murder. When challenged on the issue, she said her party did not support criminality and, if people wanted to move away from ‘terrorism,’ her party would help them.
Last February, before the Assembly election, a UDA leader urged voters to support Ms Foster on the grounds that her experience and dedication helped bring about stability and prosperity to Northern Ireland. Interesting too that, in the general election, the UVF and Red Hand Commando – organisations that are more vile than the UDA – urged voters to back the DUP and Ulster Unionist candidates in four key constituencies.
However, a DUP Lagan Valley candidate, Jeffrey Donaldson, rejected the offer of support from loyalist gunmen, saying: ‘We have not asked for the support of paramilitary organisations nor do we want the backing of organisations still engaged in paramilitary or criminal activity.’
This prompted a Sinn Féin North Belfast candidate, John Finucane, to comment ruefully: ‘The DUP like to claim they are the party of law and order, but obviously not when it comes to courting the support of paramilitary groups which are still actively involved in violence, intimidation and murder as recently as last week – and that is simply unacceptable.’ In plain language, the DUP yet has to show its unequivocal rejection of loyalist paramilitary support.
The reaction from Irish government politicos to a Tory-DUP coalition? A spokesman for the government declared that ‘Mr Kenny indicated his concern that nothing should happen to put the Good Friday Agreement at risk and the challenge that this agreement will bring.’ So that’s all right then, even if the FG statement is characteristically garbled and illiterate.
Elsewhere, within 12 hours of British voters learning about the DUP deal, more than half a million people signed an online petition demanding that the Tories drop plans to form a coalition government. Those behind the petition are seeking a million signatures that they promise to deliver to the British prime minister. Some people, it seems, care.
Meanwhile the world awaits the response of Conservative-voting people in places like Royal Tunbridge Wells to the DUP-ers’ support for the death penalty and creationism, banning beer at beer festivals, banning line-dancing, banning same-sex marriage, banning abortion and, of course, banning that infernal device, the Ouija board!