The Westminster deal has a confidence building effect which should allow the DUP and SF to confront their differences honestly – and soon, in the Assembly

The DUP deal at Westminster is reasonably secure. The prospects for a Stormont deal seem up in the air and due for postponement until the autumn. The best hope for today is that Sinn Fein may feel they’ve got just enough to continue the negotiations back in the Assembly pending the creation of an Executive in the autumn. This looks like requiring a period of temporary direct rule.

.On Nolan I’ve just heard Malachi O’Doherty opining that Sinn Fein might expect to exploit inevitable strains in the Westminster deal.  I see no grounds for that. In spite of the “toxic” talk, in terms of Westminster politics no one has identified a crunch issue for either party to the two year deal which would prevent Theresa May surviving through to the conclusion of the Article 50 negotiations in 2019. The Times gives a cool and balanced verdict.

The “confidence and supply” agreement signed yesterday will secure the support of the party’s ten MPs for the Queen’s Speech, confidence motions, finance bills and legislation on Brexit and national security. It should give Mrs May no false comfort, however, that her vision of a hard Brexit commands public support or serves the national interest. She should use the breathing space the DUP has given her to govern pragmatically and to acknowledge the necessity of maintaining close economic links with the European Union.

On other issues the DUP will retain its independence.

The deal with the DUP raises questions about the government’s neutrality in dealing across the parties represented in the devolved administration at Stormont. The DUP stands far outside the mores of modern Britain on homosexual equality and the availability of abortion. No deal has been done on these issues with the DUP but such stances will hardly be the way to cement support for the Tories among young and urban voters.

.For the government this is a recipe for survival but hardly for stability. Mrs May has a series of dilemmas. A hard Brexit, taking Britain out of the European single market and customs union, will have big economic costs. Moreover, the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland would be subject to customs control. This would raise the salience of partition and risk inflaming sectarianism some 20 years after the Good Friday agreement damped down a historic conflict.

The Irish Times is positively favourable.

The deal struck by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to keep the Conservative government in power in the United Kingdom is a good one for Northern Ireland and by extension the whole island of Ireland..

While the DUP remains committed to Brexit, the reference in the confidence and supply agreement to the importance of the farming sector in Northern Ireland is an indication that the party will be supporting the softest possible exit.

An encouraging aspect of the deal is that far from getting in the way of the restoration of the power-sharing institutions at Stormont it should provide an incentive for all the parties in the North to get involved in deciding in detail how some of the extra funding is allocated.


No one as far as I can see  who has even a fleeting knowledge  of the place sees a threat to peace in this deal.  The DUP  and Sinn Fein will soon have to stop playing games over Brexit. The DUP  will have to reconcile its support for a hard Brexit with their wish to make  a  “frictionless” border work in cooperation with the Republic and deal with cross border priorities like agriculture and harmonising corporation tax.  Sinn Fein may never get a reply to their call for special status.

For the DUP there is on no hook on which to hang themselves equivalent to the Lib Dems  in 2010 over going back on their promise of no tuition fees  or facing certain defeat in a referendum over electoral reform. Both parties were careful not to link the deal to issues neither of them can control like the restoration of the Assembly or a ban on a border poll. There is a whiff of danger over treatment of ex-security forces, over legal inquiries and the application of the military covenant to Northern Ireland.   But here the deal is sufficiently vague and reassuring and looking forward to continuing negotiations, presumably via the Assembly. It states in “Legacy”, a paragraph oddly located in “ Financial Arrangements”

The next phase is a public consultation on implementation of the Stormont House Agreement legacy bodies. These are to be established so as to operate in ways that are fair, balanced and proportionate and which do not unfairly focus on former members of the armed forces or police. Both parties reiterate their admiration for the courage and sacrifice of the police and armed forces in upholding democracy and the rule of law and will never forget the debt of gratitude that we owe them.

Malachi if I understood him  right also seems to think that the  impartiality requirements of the GFA are not much of an obstacle to a Stormont deal. He can’t be reading the same GFA as I.

Paragraph v “Constitutional Issues” states:

 ( The parties to the Agreement) affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities;

This is the framework for Sinn Fein’s insistence on the totemic issues such as the Language Act and more problematic social reforms.  A system of government relying uncompromisingly on rights without room for proportionality and compromise  barely requires  an Assembly at all.  If compromise is envisaged – requiring  for example, a more sparing use of the blocking effect of the petition of concern  –  it surely should be agreed without further delay.  The issues won’t change.





Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • ted hagan

    Sinn Fein has room to drop a lot of its baggage, including the RHI issue, but it has to secure an Irish language act to save face, and I think that can be achieved. The DUP will be in a generous mood, I believe, and will also want a forum to display its latest ‘trophy’.

  • Nevin

    Brian, you’ve not mentioned the role of Sir Malcolm McKibbin in the present talks; it allows James Brokenshire and Simon Coveney to maintain their mutually agreed ‘stand-off’ roles:

    A new interim head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has been appointed to enable the retiring incumbent to focus on chairing the Stormont talks process.

    David Sterling, the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance, takes on the role with immediate effect to allow Sir Malcolm McKibbin to concentrate on the faltering political negotiations.

    Sir Malcolm has taken on a central role in mediating efforts to restore devolution after nationalists and republicans questioned the impartiality of Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire. .. Source

  • Skibo

    Sunday World mentioned a possibility of Arlene getting a job linked to Brexit and EU negotiations. Would we really want her in that position either?

  • Ciarán Doherty

    Pretty unlikely that this govt lasts more than a few months, the moment anything remotely controversial in Brexit comes up in negotiations it’s hard to imagine any chance that it’ll hold together. Regardless of the position of the DUP, the Tories have two few seats and too little party discipline right now to handle it.

    The DUP shouldn’t get comfortable.

  • ted hagan

    The Brexiters are not going to collapse their own government and make things worse for themselves. That’s a given. Why would they?

  • 1729torus

    A majority of five seats will get whittled down fairly quickly though attrition. It suits SF for the British MPs to believe they’d force an election for the right price.

  • Brian Walker

    Not many agree. Is your wish father to the thought?

  • LiamÓhÉ

    Yes, generally, there are actually grounds for optimism in NI and even ROI given the goods the DUP are dishing up. Next focus for Stormont should be building the NI economy. Given the common tax rate coming in (a united ireland of tax rates? 😉 we could look at stronger cross-border links between IDA and the Invest NI pending decisions on the customs union. The Brexit negotiations in London and Brussels are another matter entirely, and may well end in acrimony.

  • Karl

    5 by elections a year in the last parliament. The bookies must be giving odds on how long they’ll think it’ll last.

  • ted hagan

    They need to be by elections in swing seats though. I wouldn’t bet on it.

  • Karl

    Mays ongoing incompetence since the GE result has made most of them swing seats.

  • Karl

    The DUP is in place to allow the Tories implement a hard Brexit that both really want but cant say and that the EU will happily give them to ensure Brexit isnt a success. Reading the runes over the simple rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa, there appears to be no generosity of spirit on either side. Negotiations are made public 2 minutes after they are given to the other side and no one involved believes that they can get through all the issues in 18 months.

    For a billion quid the DUP will get their hard Brexit and bankrupt Fermanagh farmers will have the best internet connection is western europe and a good road network to relocate their stock to the UK.

  • lizmcneill

    Do the DUP really want a hard Brexit? From what they’re saying they want a hard Brexit but none of the consequences (border checks, no EU money for farmers).

    Are they going to choose “have cake” or “eat cake”?

  • Karl

    Controls at Stranraer are a red line for them, so given the choice between NI getting a special deal which would be a soft Brexit for NI at least, the DUP have said that that was less important than barriers between NI and GB.
    They’ll choose a flag waving hard Brexit over any diminuition of links within the union. They’ll pay lip service to open borders.

  • Skibo

    Every seat could be a swing seat in England after the deal with the DUP.

  • Lex.Butler

    And screw the farmers? Doubt it. They’ll back a Tory Brexit until it’s not in their interests (i.e. votes) when they’ll forget to turn up to vote. They will have had the money by then as well. Ourselves Alone has always been title better suited to Ulster Unionists.

  • eamoncorbett

    It’s the Scottish Tories you have to worry about, look at the ammunition the SNP will have if Ruth Davidson doesn’t deliver an equivalent package.

  • eamoncorbett

    I don’t think there’ll be trouble until the true shape of Brexit manifests itself and the business community makes it clear to Mrs. May exactly what the effect on the economy the new arrangement will have .
    I would imagine the people will have the final say , but expect the old war in the Tory party to erupt once again if the right wing don’t win the day.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    On the contrary, many do agree. See, for example:

    But there is plenty more on similar lines in the UK Press.

    Possibly the wishes and thoughts are coming from a different direction?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    The tory party is not made up entirely from Brexiteers – that’s why they have had a long running internal war. Remember John Major?

  • Zeno3

    The Guardian wouldn’t exactly be giving an unbiased opinion now, would it?

  • Barneyt

    I concur with your opening text, that Sinn Fein might stall re-entry
    to the Assembly and there is plenty on the table to negotiate. I don’t think
    the volume warrants such an extended period and I expect Sinn Fein to back off
    when their red line issues are inevitably ignored by the UK government and the
    DUP and this will be sufficient to continue to stall the NI executive.

    Perhaps you see the autumn rebirth coinciding with the first
    findings of the RHI enquiry. If Arlene is exonerated at this time, then Sinn
    Fein may have egg on their face, as the collapse will have almost been for
    nothing. I stress almost, as the failing to deal with established items on the
    agreement was in my view, reason to revise their relationship with both the DUP
    and UK government.

    Autumn is not that far away. Direct rule for the UK government
    is merely a stick…a stick without a carrot. This stick has other stuff dangling
    from the end and it’s not pretty. If the UK government were willing to go
    direct, it perhaps would have happened by now, despite the distraction of the
    UK elections. Direct rule will trigger calls for joint authority, as Coveney in
    particular appears to have more of a belligerent approach to that of his new
    boss and may dig his heels in. The UK should know that it will trigger
    undesirable consequences for us all, particularly in light of the fact that we
    most likely will have physical checkpoints and customs posts along the border
    come Brexit. Damn it, we may even have an armed presence if this comes to its
    ugly fruition. I have no confidence in the UK government to avoid conflict in
    all forms. They can only sour their relationship with the ROI and obviously the
    EU. Little bit of recursion there with respect to ROI and the EU.

    There is enough to chew over, and the Assembly will continue
    to be drawn out in current mode. Direct rule is a spanner in the works and will
    serve up Sinn Fein something of a victory with respect to the British in
    Ireland and bolster wider calls for a poll. Direct rule might also make it
    tempting for others to provoke for the implementation of the 1967 abortion act
    in NI…and this can only come from mischievous Torys, as there will be no strong
    case for reserving this for a devolved administration…nor are there any non-DUP
    MPs. That might represent the “crunch”. This however wont happen.

    The article from the Irish times strikes me as innocent at
    best. How can SF rush back in to allocate funds, in light of their position on
    RHI, Irish act etc. I struggle to see any positive for NI in this, and there is
    more likelihood of the money not being spent, which suits the Torys well in
    terms of other Barnett claimants.

    “No one as far as I can see who has even a fleeting knowledge of
    the place sees a threat to peace in this deal.” I am not sure I agree.
    This may not be the one thing that harms peace however we will look back on it,
    as opening up a path towards it. You cant have such partisanship without some
    longer term implications.

    “the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be
    exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people” These
    words are clearly empty, as the horse has bolted through the very deal itself

    However this bit, depending on where it came from, offers
    some hope of the previously agreed aim of establishing an Irish Act being
    implemented, even it means recognising Ulster Scots as language and not a
    dialect of English. “in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be
    founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil,
    political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all
    citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the
    identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities;”

  • Barneyt

    He had his slim majority eroded and then the UU gained influence. That did not go well and as we know, the 1994 peace went belly up. As others have said, bye-elections cannot be relied upon, so, I see a confidence vote being most likely as the EU sours an of course our wee problems gain traction.

  • Barneyt

    Didnt the famers screw themselves in NI, by siding with the DUP and of course Brexit? This surpised me as I had hoped for a different outlook. I hoped flag waving would have been seen as secondary to their very industry. They dont have protestant and catholic cows…..oh wait a minute….

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Ah! Right! So who do YOU go to for this “unbiased opinion” then? Do tell us – I’ve been looking for one for years.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Ulster Scots is not “a dialect of English” – it is a dialect of ‘Scots’ which is recognised as a separate language – i.e. not a dialect of English.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    If there is to be a non-hard Brexit the only way out of the NI border dilemma is to have the border operating between the two main islands – but the DUP don’t want that either.

  • John Spence

    Just as likely to be in opposition seats as Tory seats, more likely to be in safe, than not safe seats. If averages pertain it will last as long as they want it to (2years) in terms of by elections.