Theresa May is desperate for the 10 votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to give her a majority at Westminster after her election disaster. The DUP will no doubt be delighted to oblige – at a price. Yet the deal could prove a very mixed blessing both for Brexit negotiations and the Northern Irish peace process.
Holding the balance of power in a hung UK parliament gives the hard-line Ulster loyalists a fantastic opportunity to hold the UK government to ransom. Most commentators expect they will demand a substantial boost in subsidies from the UK government, running at an annual £10bn from the Barnett formula alone. But that is the easy part.
As far as Brexit is concerned, the attitude of the DUP has long been ambiguous. The party was a strong supporter of Brexit, and indeed was responsible for laundering an unexplained £425,000 donation through its accounts to the Brexit campaign in Britain. The closest allies of the DUP MPs at Westminster are all hard-line Brexiters on the right-wing of the Tory party, who favour a hard Brexit, or no deal at all.
That is not the official position of the DUP. Arlene Foster, the party leader in Belfast, is adamant that she does not want to see a “hard” border reintroduced between Northern Ireland and the Republic. She knows that would be the inevitable result of “no deal” with the European Union. It would wreak havoc with cross-border trade relations, with a direct effect on the livelihood of many DUP supporters.
On the other hand, the DUP is committed to the principle of having some form of border, to ensure that the sovereignty of Northern Ireland is never called into question. One of the assurances the party will seek from May for their support at Westminster is that she will block any plan to hold a “border poll’ – a referendum on Irish reunification allowed for under the 1998 Good Friday agreement and favoured by Irish nationalists. Another demand will be to veto any proposal to give Northern Ireland a “special status”, a sort of halfway house between Britain and Ireland. A third is that there should be no reinforcement of border controls between the islands of Britain and Ireland, which might interfere with free movement within the UK.
The DUP will be in a much stronger position to insist on such red lines if it is May’s essential partner in power. The effect of May’s deal on the peace process could be even more dangerous. The Good Friday agreement requires that in the event of any conflict between the unionists and nationalists sharing power in Belfast, the UK and Irish governments must act as impartial arbitrators. That is precisely the current situation in Belfast, where power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein has been suspended. But with her government depending for its survival on the 10 DUP MPs at Westminster, May cannot pretend to be impartial.
This matters in Dublin – Irish prime minister Enda Kenny tweeted on Sunday:
When the referendum campaign was fought last year, the idea that Brexit might disrupt the peace process was airily dismissed by Brexiters as “ridiculous scare-mongering”. Indeed, the effect of Brexit on both Northern Ireland and the Republic was barely discussed by either side in the campaign.
Now, as a result of the election and May’s lost majority, the Irish question will be forced onto the agenda – and the DUP will have an effective veto on any compromise. That could prove disastrous for a Brexit deal and disastrous for the peace process, too.
Edited by Geert Linnebank
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