PUBLISHED: 17:20 21 June 2017 | UPDATED: 17:20 21 June 2017
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The Conservatives deal with the DUP risks undermining the delicate balance of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, says leading Sinn Féin figure
The Westminster election on June 8 was truly a political watershed for many different reasons. While the British Conservative Party were elected the biggest party it is the Labour Party, with the wily Jeremy Corbyn at its helm, who look like the real winners.
Across the water in the North of Ireland, Sinn Féin has had the best result in its history, winning seven of the possible 18 seats and with the largest mandate of 238,000 votes ever given to a nationalist/republican party in the north.
This built on an Assembly election where Sinn Féin got enough seats to break the domination of Unionist political parties in Stormont for the first time since Ireland was partitioned in 1921. Sinn Féin is also an ‘All-Ireland party’ and once you add in the party’s 23 TDs in the Dáil (parliament) in Dublin and seven Senators in the Upper Chamber, then we are looking at the biggest political party in Ireland with half a million votes across the island.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) did not have a good Stormont election in March when Sinn Féin almost eclipsed them in the North. However, on June 8 they won 10 of the 18 seats in the North of Ireland. This catapulted them into a hung-parliament scenario. As I write the DUP are in some nefarious negotiation with the British Prime Minister to keep her in power. They are basking in that limelight for the moment and who can blame them. They are being described by the local media in Ireland as ‘King makers’. We’ll see.
Little attention is normally paid to the North or South of Ireland. That’s not a complaint – it’s the way it is. In the North of Ireland we have often been accused of political navel-gazing or thinking that we are the centre of the universe.
However, at the moment, we are at the centre of a perfect storm in EU politics. The history between Britain and Ireland is long and often painful. The latest phase involved a decades-long military conflict, followed by a peace process, negotiations and a number of political agreements – chief of which was the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It is an internationally binding agreement signed by all the parties in the North of Ireland and importantly also signed by the British and Irish Governments – who are also co-guarantors of the Agreement.
The bespoke institutional arrangements are based on a power-sharing coalition. In this there are two joint First Ministers. The institutions cannot function without that partnership. That partnership broke down at the beginning of this year because the DUP broke faith with power-sharing. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Cash for Ash scandal. On the watch of DUP leader Arlene Foster, £490m, almost half a billion pounds of public money, literally, could go up in smoke. An investigation was demanded by all the other parties. Martin McGuinness, who was Arlene Foster’s joint minister at the time asked her privately to stand down for a short period until the preliminary findings came through. She refused to do so and Martin McGuinness resigned causing an election in March where the electorate at the polls punished the DUP.
This partisan and arrogant act by the DUP in government was not the first. They were implicated in the NAMA scandal of selling off huge property portfolios to venture capitalism as well as almost half a million pounds the DUP received for their Brexit campaign from nebulous sources. They reneged on agreements such as an Irish Language act, a Bill of Rights, and a civic forum. They refused to allow money to be released to the Lord Chief Justice to conduct legacy inquests, some of which went back well over 40 years.
Essentially the issues encapsulated are: lack of integrity, lack of respect and opposition to equality. The recent talks process, that all the political parties were involved in, was to try to bring integrity, respect and equality back into the political institutions.
The talks were at a critical stage when Theresa May called a snap General Election. She was unconcerned or oblivious to the importance of the discussions. She called an election to strengthen her majority so that she could continue with her austerity program which has done massive damage to the public sector and to the most vulnerable in our society. In the subvention economy which pertains in the North of Ireland the Conservatives have stripped a billion pounds off the block-grant with catastrophic consequences.
So if or when May makes an agreement with the DUP there are a number of things that she should think about: It’s not that some of their elected members are religious fundamentalists who believe that the Earth only came into being 6,000 years ago; it’s not that some of them do not accept that global warming is driven by humankind; it’s not that many are homophobic or against equal marriage; it’s not that the UDA, a currently active paramilitary organisation, canvassed for them in every constituency; it’s not that some of them do not trust ordinary Muslims ‘to go to the shop’: it isn’t even that some of them think that breast-feeding in public is voyeuristic or exhibitionist!
It is that maybe Theresa ought to know that the political leadership of the DUP breaks agreements – not just with their partners in government but also with governments themselves. She should personally read the Good Friday Agreement to know what a historic achievement it was and why it is important to keep faith with it and not to make any partisan underhand agreements that will undermine the delicate balance that is power-sharing.
She might also listen carefully to the views of Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, or the testimony of Marco Biagi, in the Sunday papers, who was a minister in the Scottish Parliament. Listen perhaps to John Major, British Prime Minister at the very beginning of political negotiations and the last Prime Minister to be offered a deal with Unionism to stay in power.
The Conservative backbenchers, I’m quite sure, may have already given varied worrying opinions. As for the DUP delegation in Downing Street, they will take no advice from the likes of me. However I might advise that they do not get too mesmerised by the less than deft hands of the magical juggler Theresa May trying to keep oh so many balls in the air at the same time. She may be a short-lived illusion of grandeur as they may be themselves.
None of the above will be giving pro-Irish Republican views. But just in case she might read this she should remember that the majority in the North of Ireland, which included a section of Unionists voted against Brexit. They want to stay in Europe. The vast bulk of Irish Nationalists are not arguing for a Soft Brexit or a Hard Brexit but for no border at all in Ireland. They want ‘Special Designated Status’ with Europe and look to the Irish Government to argue for it with the other EU States.
Sinn Féin stood in the Westminster election, as it always does, on an abstentionist platform. The other Nationalist party (SDLP) argued ad nauseum for taking an oath to the Queen and taking their seats in Westminster. The SDLP lost all of its three seats. Irish Nationalism has turned its back on London and looks to Ireland and the rest of Europe for its future.
However, the most crucial and immediate challenge is the setting up of the Good Friday Institutions so that the everyday lives of the people living in the North of Ireland can be improved. That is Sinn Féin’s immediate priority. We believe in the interdependent and agreed institutions of the Assembly, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British/Irish Council which deal with all the human and political relationships of these two islands.
Power-sharing needs a partnership based on equality, respect and integrity. These talks are not a new negotiation, they are about the implementation of agreements already made. The DUP have to implement what they have already agreed. Integrity needs to be restored. Whatever Theresa May decides to agree with Unionism she needs to remember that the British Government also signed on the dotted line. She too has a duty to implement and not to undermine.
Gerry Kelly is a leading Sinn Féin politician and was on its negotiating team during the years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement and after; he is the party’s policing spokesman