The DUP-Conservative Pact: Risking Irish Peace for Personal Power

In Upper Normandy, a short drive from Paris, France, sits the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Arts.
Built by the Roman Catholics in the sixteenth century, its rich decor and flamboyant style represented the return of investment to the town of Pont-de-l'Arche after the Hundred Years War. For decades the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, had fought against the House of Valois, rulers of the Kingdom of France, over the succession to the French throne. Both appealed to divine right to justify their violence, so it is perhaps ironic that this religious monument represented a temporary return to relative stability.

Across the river from the church lies a much more sober monument, but one equally tied up in politics and religion. 18 years working for the Commission for the Recovery of Victims Remains has led a team to this forest outside Pont-de-l'Arche. For a moment the diggers pause and their engines soften. A man bends down over the dig site. They have found something. Or rather, someone.

That someone is Seamus Ruddy, one of the 16 ‘Disappeared’ during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Troubles was a thirty year armed struggle that lasted formally until 1999. It took place between numerous different factions that can be roughly categorised into two opposing sides. The mainly Protestant Unionists and Loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, against the mainly Catholic Nationalists and Republicans who fought for an independent, united Ireland. In part, it was sparked by Unionist domination of politics, jobs and housing after the creation of Northern Ireland in 1922.

Early on in the conflict British troops were sent in to restore order. However, after they shot dead 14 Catholic protestors on Bloody Sunday the violence only escalated. The IRA took arms to force British withdrawal and the Loyalists responded with various Ulster militias such as the UVF, UFF and UDA. Over the coming years above 3,600 people would die, half of them civilians.

In the 1970’s Seamus joined the IRSP, the political wing of the INLA: an Irish Republican paramilitary splinter group associated with the more infamous IRA. In 1983 Seamus became disillusioned with the organisation and moved to Paris. But so violent were the Troubles in Northern Ireland that in-fighting inside the INLA led some members to seek information about an arms dump near Rouen to strengthen their position. Seamus was accused of knowing this information. In May 1985, three INLA members took Seamus to the forest, tied him to a tree and tortured, murdered and buried him.

Northern Ireland is a much different place today. But the discovery of Seamus’ remains this month is a sharp reminder of how fragile and young Irish peace is. It took three Prime Ministers and 30 years of political manoeuvring to generate a power sharing agreement between Unionists and Republicans and this should not be regarded as the end of Irish strife or diplomacy. In 2011, dissident republicans killed a police officer and in 2013 several Loyalist flag protests took place. Even the power-sharing agreement is uncertain. 2002 was the first time the Northern Irish Assembly was suspended; this year is the second.

So perhaps it is no wonder that Theresa May’s decision to make a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP has left the architects of the Good Friday Agreement on edge. Britain’s position is formally one of impartial arbitration in the long-term process of peacekeeping and in the immediate process of returning the Stormont assembly from suspension. An agreement with the DUP undermines this for three reasons.

Firstly, the DUP infamously has links to several Ulster Militias, including the Ulster Resistance and the UDA. Just this month the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, allegedly visited UDA boss Jackie McDonald after the murder of Loyalist Colin Horner by a UDA breakaway group. For Theresa May to make pact with someone with such connections undercuts impartiality when arbitrating disagreements in the Northern Irish Assembly. Secondly, the DUP has historically opposed peaceful cooperation. It rejected power sharing attempts in 1973 and the Good Friday talks themselves in 1996.

Finally, the reason the Northern Irish Assembly is suspended is directly linked to the DUP and Arlene Foster in particular. Sinn Fein has refused to work with the party whilst Foster is in power due to the part she played in the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. In 2012 the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment rolled out the Renewable Heat Initiative. This was supposed to provide subsidies to incentivise companies to switch to renewable energy to for heating. It did more than incentivise: the law meant that for every £1 spent on renewable heating the government would pay a company £1.60. This lead to reports of farmers making millions from the government by heating empty sheds, including the brother of DUP special advisor Andrew Crawfords. In total the scheme cost the Northern Irish taxpayer £490m. Who was the head of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2012? Arlene Foster.

It could be argued, on the contrary, that the DUP deal would actually consolidate peace in Northern Ireland. Whilst their social policy seems to have been informed by those who literally built the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Arts in the 16th century, economically they are much less right wing than the Conservatives. For example, 61% of DUP supporters would support a tax increase to fund universal free care. Consequently, DUP demands have included increased spending in Northern Ireland such as on education and health. Some commentators have argued that investment would bring jobs and prosperity to disillusioned Protestant Loyalist youths who feel they are yet to see the rewards of peace.

However, aside from the fact that DUP favouritism could alternatively risk a return to the power and prosperity imbalances that contributed to the Troubles, such an agreement also appears as informed as the Renewable Heat Initiative. Rather than ‘cash for ash,’ Arelene Foster and Theresa May could be accused this time of votes for cash. Not only does a DUP-Conservative alliance create, in the words of John Major, ‘concern’ for peace in Northern Ireland, but it has implications for devolution in Britain as a whole. For the rest of the UK to continue to bear the brunt of austerity juxtaposed with increased funding in Northern Ireland will look nothing short of a political bribe. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones has already described the £1bn deal as “outrageous,” stating that it “all but kills the idea of fair funding for the nations and regions.”

By making pact with the DUP, Theresa May has both threatened Northern Irish peace and stability as well as created a devolutionary constitutional crisis. It is hard to see this decision through any other lens than one that reveals a grab for power. Perhaps we shall be lucky. Perhaps Northern Ireland will remain intact. But the fact Mrs May has risked so much for personal and party political interest is telling of her attitude to the national interest. Perhaps our Prime Minister should take a walk through the forests at Pont-de-l'Arche or sit for a moment within the grand walls of the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Arts before deciding what path to take from here.