This article makes up the third part of a series that takes a satirical look back on the last year and a bit of Northern Irish Politics. The following was written entirely tongue in cheek and none of it should be taken very seriously.
Find Parts I and II here:
Talk About Talks About Talks
Election over, democracy enacted, job done, time to get back to the work of government, right? I cannot stress enough how much the answer should be yes and how much I wish it was.
Instead we entered into a period of talks and negotiations whereby the DUP and Sinn Fein must agree on a program for government and enter into a power-sharing Executive. These talks had a deadline but as we were soon to find out the meaning of the word deadline would soon go through a wondrous transition passing through “ideal target”, “light suggestion” and “random arbitrary date” all on the way to its final destination “complete joke”.
These talks would be arbitrated none other than the ultimate drawer of short straws when it came to cabinet picks, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire. And yes that is actually his last name and yes it does perfectly describe his job and yes I do think it is possible that is the reason he was chosen for the role out of some kind of sick joke.
Of course Sinn Fein claimed that Brokenshire and a Conservative government could never be a fair moderator of such discussions and looking back now with the hindsight of what happened in the 2017 general election they clearly didn’t know how good they had it. This is of course a genuine problem, the Conservatives are a political party it’s not possible for them to be entirely neutral. But the problem with outside moderators is that unlike the British government they can’t dangle a big check to help the NI parties over the finish line.
These talks were top secret so it is impossible to comment on specifics because we just don’t know what happened. Luckily for us Sinn Fein helpfully summarised their thoughts that all Brokenshire said was “waffle, waffle, waffle”. And I’m sure if the British government weren’t, unlike our parties, constrained by actually having to act like adults they would have summarised their thoughts on Sinn Fein as “Why is Gerry here didn’t we get rid of him to the south?” and “Who is that blonde woman who just sits there while Gerry does all the talking?”
The talks dragged on and on we still had no idea what it was that was holding them up. But as small bits of information started to trickle through it seemed Sinn Fein might have been moving the goal posts. At first it was all about Foster’s resignation, she couldn’t stay on until we knew the conclusions of the RHI inquiry, but then it was all about the Irish Language Act and then petition of concern and then marriage equality which is in some ways intertwined with the petition of concern as it would already have passed if it weren’t for the DUP’s shameful misuse of the mechanism.
It is difficult to form an opinion on whose fault it was that there hadn’t been a return to government. Both parties could have been following the logic that as long as they didn’t have to work with their counterparts then there would be no reason to moderate their rhetoric leaving them free to stoke their base.
On the other hand it is possible that Sinn Fein were on a high from the election result and were overreaching themselves. Similarly the same result may had put the DUP too much on the back foot and while any other time they might have been open to some compromise they may have made the decision not to give anything away in an attempt to prove that nothing had changed and they were not weakened.
Or maybe they both just enjoyed the fact that they were keeping their full salaries while civil servants did their jobs for them.
Just when you thought the excitement had peaked and we couldn’t possibly have any more politics the ghoulish figure of Theresa May rose up to utter those three words terrifying enough to make anyone’s blood curl, “Snap General Election”.
Theresa May’s decision to call a general election for the 8th June was made with a complete disregard to regaining stability in Northern Ireland. With this move Mrs May had clearly shown that Northern Ireland or any potential political crisis here are simply not priorities for her government and she has little concern for the almost certainly damaging effects a general election would have on the process of forming a government in Stormont.
Once the NI parties fell out of negotiating mode and into the much more volatile campaign mode, the divisive nature of elections would tear apart any hopes of a compromise-driven agreement for the foreseeable future.
For the DUP and Sinn Fein the general election campaign could mean only one thing, the time to go back to ripping shreds out of each other had returned. The UUP and SDLP had certainly demonstrated in the Assembly election that the path to election success in Northern Ireland is not reconciliation across community lines.
The DUP were be keen to cast the general election as a wakeup call for unionism following the scare they got from losing the unionist majority in Stormont. Meanwhile Sinn Fein were be looking for a big push to close the gap of only 1,168 votes that separated them from matching the DUP in the Assembly Election. Whether it’s a wakeup call to regain your once dominant position or an effort to close the gap, both main parties know the path to success is to beat the tribal drums and stir up fears about the other side.
While the election distracted the local parties from reaching an agreement likewise the conservative party was in no position to guide the negotiations or offer incentives during the campaign period.
This election was not necessary, something Theresa May stated a number of times since her ascension to Prime Minister, the government was not losing votes in the commons or facing repeated defeats in the Lords, there was no economic or military crisis and neither the people nor the press were demanding the government be held to account now and in this manner. The legitimate reasons not to hold an election therefore could not be seen as acceptable collateral damage in pursuit of any greater good.
May’s true motivation for this election was clear; she believed this was the best time to increase her majority against a weak Labour Party. All this points to one simple conclusion, in the political calculations of Theresa May and her cabinet, the welfare of the regions is far down their list of priorities.
At the launch of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland manifesto James Brokenshire gave the parties 21 days after the election before “passing the baton” to the government in Westminster to run Northern Ireland. An extended period of rule from Westminster such as this would have been and still would be a bad idea. It would remove all responsibility from the DUP and Sinn Fein to moderate and compromise.
The practicalities of running a power sharing government has always forced the DUP and Sinn Fein to behave in a much more moderated manner than they might otherwise want to in order to appeal to the more hard-line bases. This is because a solid record in government is something the DUP and Sinn Fein have always been able to hold over the SDLP and UUP.
If the Conservatives were to remove this incentive by taking away the opportunity to govern then the parties would have little motivation to tone down their rhetoric, which would further distance the prospect of a return to the Executive.
When in 2012 Sinn Fein were willing to eventually give up the fight over welfare reform and hand the power back to Westminster they did so at the expense of a number of attack ads from the SDLP. Sinn Fein’s reasoning was that in accepting the reality that a devolved government without tax raising powers has very little sway over welfare issues they protected the unbroken term in government. This record in government proved to be a valuable weapon later on when in 2016 and 2017 the DUP and Sinn Fein were able to see off threats of a potential resurgent UUP and SDLP presenting themselves as an alternative Executive-in-waiting.
The same is true of the DUP when they adopted their revolving door resignations strategy over the alleged PIRA activity and the murder of Kevin McGuigan. Instead of storming out of the Executive in righteous injustice as the UUP did, they kept the institutions running, once again protecting the record in government of two unbroken terms between 2007 and 2016. It is easy to imagine that without this record to protect, the actions of our two largest parties may have been quite different on both these occasions.
As it stood the blame for a lack of a government in Northern Ireland rested solely on the DUP and Sinn Fein. Evidence of this pressure was beginning to show by Arlene Foster’s softening of her stance on the Irish language. A return to Westminster rule would have levitated some of this pressure at a time when it needed to be applied as much as possible.
It is of course not the fault of the Conservatives that the Executive did collapse in 2017 and that the DUP and Sinn Fein were unable to come to an agreement as to its reformation. However, the British government will only perpetuate the problem by removing the responsibility to govern and therefore the imperative to cooperate. To add to this, devolution is not only a moderating influence on our parties but also on voters. In our divided society, one issue that has almost unanimous support is support for devolution and voters are therefore willing to accept compromise in the name of devolution.
Oh So Now We’re Important?
“Dady, is it true there were once SDLP and UUP MPs?”
“Aye Son, as far as the eye could see”
It was always inevitable if the trend lines continued and it finally came to pass. The DUP and Sinn Fein wiped out the UUP and SDLP and left them without a Westminster seat between them. The last couple of months had been so divisive and the UUP and SDLP had been left scrambling for relevancy. The results of the election were DUP 10 seats, Sinn Fein 7 seats and North Down remained its posh, disparate little land.
The campaign however had been largely uneventful and talks of pacts dominated the news. The DUP had decided they were too good for a formal pact with the UUP and it turned out they were largely right. Meanwhile the idea of a proposed anti-Brexit pact was quickly dismissed as just a nationalist pact by another name.
We did get a glimpse at what the future may hold with regards to Sinn Fein candidates in the form of John Finucane in North Belfast. Finucane’s father was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries during the trouble and he has been a long-time campaigner for an inquiry into the matter so his nationalist credentials are strong but he has no links to the IRA or old Sinn Fein. While Finucane did not win his seat he did manage to achieve the best ever result for his party securing 41 percent of the vote against the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds.
During the campaign Theresa May spent literally less than an hour in Northern Ireland, we were, as usual, thoroughly ignored. But that all changed when the Conservatives failed to gain a majority and the DUP’s 10 MPs would conveniently put them over the line. Then all of a sudden it was all “Our close friends in the DUP” and to the sound of millions of keyboards clicking across Britain as people frantically Googled “who are the DUP?” it became clear that some sort of agreement would soon be formed.
But what did this mean for the DUP and Northern Ireland and what would it mean for our next Conservative government?
Many of the smaller parties in the rest of the UK were keen early on in the campaign to rule out any kind of coalition or deal with either Labour or the Conservatives, having seen the electoral impact on the Liberal Democrats for having made such a bargain in 2010.
The DUP however arguably did not face the same threat of backlash for “propping up” a Conservative government. The issues that dominate the political landscape in Northern Ireland are so different that the DUP did not need to gain much in the way of concessions from the Tories in order to be able to justify this new alliance to their core voters.
The DUP’s success in gaining two Westminster seats in this election can largely be seen as a consolidation towards the extremes of with Sinn Fein also making gains. The nationalist surge in the assembly election scared unionists and they have reacted by consolidating around one voice in the form of the DUP. In losing their majority for the first time ever in Stormont, unionists were concerned that they were losing their grip on power and that calls for a border poll were starting to look more legitimate. What better way then to restate your dominance than by playing a significant role in the next government? Contrast this with 7 abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs and 0 SDLP MPs removing the nationalist voice from Westminster entirely, and the question surely has to be asked has unionism in Northern Ireland ever looked stronger?
With regards to specific policy there are few big issues that the DUP and Conservatives actually disagreed on. The deal therefore was always more likely to focus on funding and the “block grant” that is sent to Stormont. Given the size of the Northern Ireland economy the small increases needed to make a significant difference must have seemed like a small price to pay for the Conservatives in order to stay in power.
The final figure agreed for Northern Ireland that the DUP might support this conservative government was £1 Billion. One billion pounds, and most of it designated for infrastructure projects, if there were ever a couple of rooms in your house that you might like a bridge between now was the time to speak up and ask for funding. The DUP seemed to have gotten us plenty to spare. Sorry Scotland and Wales, sometimes it pays to be the politically obscure region.
Finn Purdy is a student from Belfast, currently studying at Trinity College Dublin.