As Theresa May finalises her deal with the DUP, it will raise fundamental questions about Irish politics, writes Chris Bambery
You think you’ve got rid of one national question that’s given you a migraine and then along comes another. The only bright note in Theresa May’s head in the early hours of Friday morning was that she’d seen off any threat of independence in Scotland. But it might just be dawning on her that another, older and more intense headache might be returning – the Irish question.
Her decision to form a “government of certainty” with the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party threatens to revive the Irish question more than two decades after the Good Friday Agreement seemed to have resolved the Northern Irish troubles. For the British ruling class there must be concern over that, plus over the DUP having any say in how the UK is ruled. This is a party founded on sectarianism by the late Reverend Ian Paisley, bringing together anti-gay bigots, creationists, MPs who generally back Labour over economic issues and which lacks any clear coherence. It has a history of playing fast and loose with loyalist paramilitaries. They are also Brexiteers in a state, Northern Ireland, which voted to Remain.
The power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive has been suspended since the break-down last year between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Elections too it earlier this year saw Sinn Fein come very near to equalling the DUP’s share of the vote. This in a state whose boundaries were artificially drawn by British civil servants to supposedly guarantee a permanent Unionist majority.
The DUP went all out to ensure that wasn’t repeated in the Westminster elections which has left the picture in Northern Ireland never so simple. Only the DUP and Sinn Fein were left standing. The DUP took ten seats, eliminating their rivals, the Ulster Unionist Party (which ran Northern Ireland as a one party state from its creation in 1921 until the old Northern Parliament was swept away by the British government in 1972), while Sinn Fein took seven and saw their rivals, the SDLP, wiped out too.
The Good Friday Agreement means the British and Irish governments are supposed to intervene to facilitate the creation of a power-sharing executive. If such an executive is not created, London takes over control of Northern Ireland. Now the question is: how can that work with this deal between May and the DUP? The British government is scarcely neutral.
But that is not the biggest problem: that is caused by Brexit. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The DUP is badly out of step with the majority vote in Northern Ireland. More importantly, it has re-raised the issue of the border because the Irish Republic is not just a member of the EU and the Single Market. The DUP will harp on that Dublin should not be an open door for migrants and EU goods to enter the UK by the back door, and would not mourn if a hard border with custom checks was exposed.
Some might point out there’s always been an open border between the UK and the Irish Republic but for most of that time the latter was not part of the Eurozone and the Single Market. Now it is.
From Brussels the Irish card is the obvious one to play in the chaotic Brexit negotiations which will follow this election, and they’ll have a willing ally in the Irish government who’ve already fallen out with May over Brexit.
Sinn Fein are clearly eyeing a border poll on partition, which can be called under the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland’s demographics have changed and they will be weighing up whether there is the required nationalist majority in Northern Ireland.
There’s little chance of any serious armed republican campaign resuming. Dissident republicans are marginal. Sinn Fein must be looking at how they can work in tandem with the EU, the Dublin government and Corbyn’s Labour in Britain.
The issue of whether Ireland, then a British colony, should be granted devolution, not even independence, polarised British society in the years before the First World War, with the Tories arming and funding Unionist paramilitaries who threatened civil war, and the ruling Liberal Party being pulled apart.
The partition of Ireland in 1921-1922 seemed to resolve this, but it left behind a political slum in Northern Ireland which was characterised by sectarianism, gerrymandering, repression and poverty. The oppressed nationalist population took to the streets in 1968 and 1969 demanding civil rights. They were met with batons, bullets and riot gas. When the armed police could not contain the protests the British Army was rushed in, but it too found itself putting down protests and in response the Provisional IRA was formed, firstly to protect nationalist areas, and then to respond to state violence by targeting the security forces.
After repression failed to contain all this, the British switched to essentially isolating the Northern Irish problem. Restricted to the nationalist ghettoes of Northern Ireland the IRA could not beat the British, but the British could not destroy the IRA. After years of deadlock both sides began to search for a political solution. It is worth recalling the DUP opposed virtually every step towards the Good Friday deal until the lure of office intervened.
History does not repeat itself and the British ruling class do not fear a revival of the IRA. But what they might well fear is that May has opened the door to the DUP just as Brexit negotiations begin and that the border issue can explode into those talks, with Sinn Fein expertly putting the Brits onto the back foot on the international stage. And Britain’s record in Ireland does not bear examination.
So, even as Theresa May begins to grasp the extent of her difficulties over Ireland another thought might form in her brain. Four hundred miles to the north the Scottish government will be watching negotiations over the Irish border like a hawk because it has huge implications for its hopes to keep Scotland, which also voted Remain, in the Single Market. Nicola Sturgeon may be down but she’s not out and she awaits a hard Brexit deal, and one in Ireland, which will put Scotland’s place in the UK centre stage.
Theresa May has made her deal with the DUP, but in terms of modern Ireland they represent the past. Irish unity as a way of resolving this Brexit pickle seems the future.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.