Come on, Arlene!

This is an outsider perspective from someone who has lived in England for longer than I spent growing up in Northern Ireland. While I keep a track on NI, I may not have got every detail right. Please bear with me (and let me know in case of any howlers).

For as long as I can remember, the government has striven to be neutral to all intents and purposes in Northern Ireland. The NI Secretary, whether Labour or Conservative, might have been suspected of favouring one side or the other, but officially, and with plausible deniability, they were concerned with ensuring that all communities were treated with fairness. This is something which a Welsh / Scottish Sec never had to deal with — quite simply because the Welsh and Scots don’t tend to schedule an entire season of rioting each year.

The DUP are a tribal party. Nominally they would represent the tribe which I was born into. I would never vote for the DUP. Nor (I hope) would any of my friends. It’s hard to explain because of the fact that there’s nothing I can compare them to over here. It’s somewhere between the Tories and the BNP — UKIP probably is as close as we’ve seen. They’re proudly anti-intellectual, they’re proudly tribal and they’re hugely religious — the party was founded out of Ian Paisley’s inability to get anywhere within the official Unionist party in the 1960’s / 70's.

Making them part of the government with a few hours of discussion (and according to what Arlene Foster has shared, without much of a basis for an agreement on what’s being given in return) is recklessness which is probably worse than Cameron’s promise of the EU referendum. At least he had the defence of thinking he could actually win. May cannot have thought this through — or cannot have been advised. I expect there’s a Perm Sec in the Northern Ireland Office today who’s still gently rocking backward and forward and hoping this is all a dream.

We’ve just seen the most backward election in Northern Ireland ever, where all but one seat went to the most extreme parties available representing Nationalist and Unionist views. Under normal circumstances the person with the keys to No 10 Downing St today would be calling a crisis meeting to try to work out why NI has turned back to these extremes.

Under normal circumstances one of the biggest political issues in the UK and one of the biggest stories of the last six months would have been the fact that the power-sharing assembly, which was created after the Good Friday Agreement, was suspended after the First Minister (leader of the DUP) refused to step aside while her conduct as a minister in the Executive was investigated (while obviously looking bang to rights), and after an election in which Sinn Fein nearly managed to top the poll, the parties couldn’t agree a basis on which they could return to government.

Theresa May ignored this. The small part of Ireland which surpasses all understanding (thanks, PJ) wasn’t important enough for her to visit while all this was going on. She left it to her NI Sec, who doesn’t appear to have done much. And when the deadline passed for an executive to be formed, she unilaterally extended the deadline. Conveniently, she extended it to a point after this election. So now she needs to find a way to placate her atavistic coalition partners, while also keeping the rest of NI on board. Meant to be a referee, she’s just picked the ball up and handed it to one team. Arguably (and I am sure someone is combing through the documents) TM has broken something in the Good Friday / St Andrews agreements. More urgently, she’s just given any dissident republican a massive excuse to shoot someone / blow something up.

The impact in NI is going to be massive. And I expect it to be retrograde. I can’t see any scenario where this ends well. On the national side, I can’t see it playing well with the Scottish Tories (for two reasons — they know more about the DUP and Orangeism than their English counterparts, generally, and they’re led by the very charismatic, fairly outspoken and openly gay Ruth Davidson, who is now going to find herself standing beside people who think she’s an aberration) and aside from anything else, the Tories are going to be tarred with the same brush as the DUP.

I thought it would be easy — build a few more schools / roads / hospitals / leisure centres, but with her usual pigheaded recklessness, TM appears to have said “Come on Arlene” and pledged her troth without checking what it’s going to cost her. It’s a trivial thing to begin with, but if the DUP is really starting by demanding that Team GB becomes Team UK, Theresa’s going to be in trouble once they really get going. What bits of social / human rights policy might they want to rip up?

NI is very generously funded from the UK taxpayer — austerity hasn’t bitten as badly there as (say) NE England. For Theresa May she’s going to find that how she differentiates Northern Ireland for all sorts of policy becomes a massive integrity / reputational issue and endanger her government.

The mainstream press probably treat the DUP as a bit of a funny end of bulletin story — they appear to be massively corrupt (despite being Christian, nominally) and often embarrassing. They have no idea of the amount of scrutiny they’re about to get on a national level.

How can the suspension of the executive be resolved? Previously the PM could threaten direct rule — the biggest party in NI now has a stick they can wield to counter that threat.

The more immediate problem is that SF will probably force a new Assembly election, and with the collapse of the SDLP and a surging nationalist / republican turnout fuelled by the fear of the DUP’s Westminster influence it seems inevitable they WILL be the largest party and then the DUP will find themselves truly up in an intolerable position for their base — having no option but to go into local government as second fiddle to SF and endure a massive loss of face for the party and their leader or bring the whole peace process to an abrupt end — while also propping up the UK government.

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