By Jonathan Stevenson, Senior Fellow for US Defence; Editor of Strategic Comments
The Conservative Party’s loss of its parliamentary majority in the recent snap election made Theresa May look almost as strategically inept as her predecessor, David Cameron. Among other things, it necessitated that the Tories find a suitable coalition partner, and by default they have chosen the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), now Northern Ireland’s largest party, which won ten parliamentary seats. Founded by the late Rev. Ian Paisley, the firebrand Protestant minister, the DUP is socially conservative (opposing abortion and gay rights), sectarian and vehemently unionist. It is a throwback to the days when Brits took overweening pride in the empire, and in the union with Northern Ireland, and would therefore strongly support the nostalgic aspects of Brexit as well as the impending departure from the European Union advocated by the Tories. But the DUP is also being fiercely challenged by Sinn Féin, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA)’s political alter ego, which won only one less seat in the devolved assembly elections last March and only three fewer seats in the House of Commons (though its policy of abstention bars the party’s MPs from taking those seats). Overall, the Tories’ resort to the DUP reflects their underestimation of the Brexit vote’s destabilising effect on Northern Irish politics.
Sinn Féin, whose supporters overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU, as Northern Ireland did as a whole by 56%, believes Brexit would negate a vital premise of the Belfast Agreement that established a devolved power-sharing arrangement and ended ‘The Troubles’ in 1998. The membership of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in the EU was the most important factor in making that agreement’s overlay of a single multicultural nation on top of separate sovereign entities a psychologically sustainable compromise. An increasingly integrated Europe created economic incentives and political ideas compelling enough to move the UK, the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland to moderate their national identities. Accordingly, the Belfast Agreement contemplates a soft, permeable border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and incorporates cross-border arrangements like those adopted by the EU, regulating areas such as agriculture, education and tourism on a bi-consensual basis. But one of the Brexiteers’ primary grievances is excessive immigration, and addressing that would require a hard physical border between the UK and any EU state. The only such border is Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic.
Furthermore, the possibility of the Conservative Party–DUP coalition comes at a time of deep political dysfunction in Northern Ireland. The devolved assembly has been suspended for three months due to differences between the DUP and Sinn Féin, as well as Sinn Féin’s desire to show its muscle in the wake of the Brexit vote. Now those differences have only intensified. Sinn Féin leaders have repeated calls for Northern Ireland to secure special EU status upon the UK’s exit, and warned that any Conservative Party–DUP partnership will likely be short-lived and ‘end in tears’. Their scepticism and alarm are not surprising.
Prime Minister Theresa May called an early election mainly to consolidate support for a ‘hard’ Brexit, which entails no freedom of movement within the EU, no single market, no customs union and no European Court of Justice jurisdiction over the UK. The stratagem backfired when the Conservative Party failed to win an outright majority. But she is still politically compelled to try to salvage a hard Brexit, even if those advocating a softer exit have gained traction – indeed, perhaps all the more so on that account – and that could mean establishing a hard border. While May has been dismissive of the hard border problem, even EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier – who is loath to aggravate the constitutional issue between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland – has acknowledged the practical difficulty of keeping the border free of the kinds of physical installations that antagonised republicans during The Troubles, which disappeared after the Belfast Agreement was signed. Although the DUP has recognised the inflammatory nature of a reimposed hard border and voiced opposition to it, it may feel obliged to comply with the wishes of the Conservative Party to consolidate the partnership that has empowered it. This would intensify Sinn Féin’s motivation to push for a referendum on whether Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom or united with the Irish Republic, which the party began urging immediately after the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016.
As the junior coalition partner, the DUP will hold the balance of power, which in some situations may enable it to ‘wag the dog’. For instance, it might have the leverage to insist on strong and public Tory support for its resistance to any referendum. In that case, Northern Irish republicans would face the strongest UK-wide opposition to their agenda since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, well before the 1994 ceasefires, which were facilitated in part by a more moderate stance taken by her successor John Major, and triggered the peace process culminating in the Belfast Agreement. Worse still, should power-sharing under the Belfast Agreement – already in some jeopardy – break down indefinitely, direct rule by Westminster would resume. Northern Irish republicans would then confront the ignominy of being directly governed not only by Great Britain but also, in part, by the DUP, which might not be above overt triumphalism. In these circumstances, a sustained surge of dissident violence, ‘licensed’ or perhaps even joined by the Provisionals themselves, would become more likely. This could prompt loyalist retaliation and potentially a major political and security crisis in Northern Ireland.
While outgoing Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has voiced concerns about the coalition’s potential disruption of Northern Irish politics and government, unionist leaders have tended to dismiss them – Lord Trimble scoffing at ‘scaremongering’ and DUP officials issuing reassurances that it will engage with the Conservative Party only on an issue-by-issue basis, dubbed ‘supply and confidence’, and keep sectarianism and constitutional issues out of the relationship. This seems easier said than done, as the DUP has also indicated that it will seek assurances from the Tories that there will be no referendum on Irish unification and no post-Brexit special EU status for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s ‘marching season’ has begun, and will peak with the unionist Battle of the Boyne celebrations on 12 July. This period has always made for frayed nerves and sudden provocations in the province, and this year warrants special attention. An especially tense and eventful marching season could signal deeper trouble to come.