16 July 2019
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has warned the marriage between the Tory Party and the DUP may threaten peace in Northern Ireland. Photo: Reuters
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has warned the marriage between the Tory Party and the DUP may threaten peace in Northern Ireland. Photo: Reuters

Why Tory-DUP marriage might reignite Northern Ireland tension

Not only has the Tories’ defeat in the recent British snap election caused anger and disaffection against Prime Minister Theresa May among the party, her decision to seek a partnership with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP) to form a coalition government has also sparked widespread controversy.

As John Major, former British Prime Minister and chairman of the Conservative Party, has pointed out, teaming up with the DUP is like opening a Pandora’s box, which may bring about far-reaching and highly unpredictable repercussions.

In the worst-case scenario, he warned, the Tory-DUP partnership might reignite religious tension in Northern Ireland, which has already subsided since the Belfast Peace Agreement, more commonly known as the “Good Friday Agreement” (GFA), was concluded almost 20 years ago.

The bloody conflict between the majority Protestants and the minority Catholics, who currently account for 30 percent of the population in Northern Ireland, between the 1960s and 1990s had led to more than 3,600 deaths.

It wasn’t until the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political wing, Sinn Fein, as well as representatives from the government of the Republic of Ireland, finally reached a peace agreement, i.e. the GFA, with London in 1998 that peace and order were finally restored to Northern Ireland.

Under the agreement, major political parties in Northern Ireland such as Sinn Fein and the DUP would form a coalition administration and the region would be given a high degree of autonomy by London, which is often referred to as a “devolved” system of government.

However, religious violence might have ended as a result of the conclusion of the GFA, but political differences and divisions have continued to dominate the Northern Ireland Assembly over the years.

On one hand, Sinn Fein has remained defiant and refused to pledge allegiance to the Queen even to this day, whereas the DUP, a diehard pro-London party made up predominantly of Protestants, is dissatisfied with the current political framework laid down by the GFA because it thinks London has made too much compromise to the “insurgents” when negotiating the peace treaty back in the 1990s.

For years, the two parties have been at odds with each other.

Once the DUP becomes a partner in the central coalition government in London, it might further exacerbate the political differences between it and Sinn Fein.

And the matter is further compounded by the fact that while the majority of Northern Irish people are leaning toward remaining in the European Union (EU), the DUP is the only party in Northern Ireland that supports Britain’s exit of the EU, and is strictly against any idea of preserving the region’s “special status” in the EU after Britain’s departure.

If the Northern Irish people find that the DUP is not reflecting their wishes accurately and unreservedly during the Brexit talks between London and Brussels, it might provoke a backlash over there.

Apart from its uncompromising stance on Brexit, the ultra-conservative DUP is also swimming against the liberal tide that is now bestriding the British political scene like the Colossus. For example, it is rigorously anti-abortion, anti-LGBT and anti-Darwinism. And because of its fierce opposition, Northern Ireland remains the only region in Britain that has yet to legalize same-sex marriage.

To a certain extent, the DUP and its support base have quite a lot in common with the evangelicals and the religious right in the US.

Some are worried that once the DUP has come to power along with the Tories, they might together promote conservative values. And if that happens, Labour will milk it for all it is worth and claim the moral high ground in order to expand its demographic appeal, thereby giving rise to further polarization over values in British society.

However, the biggest variable in the Tory-DUP partnership is perhaps the fact that if the DUP becomes part of the central coalition government and takes Northern Irish issues to Westminster for discussion, then London will inevitably get involved in the local affairs of Northern Ireland in the days ahead.

Again, if that happens, it will undoubtedly raise grave concerns about London’s potential interference and undermine the already fragile confidence in the GFA and the autonomy it guarantees among both the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland.

The political scene of Belfast underwent turbulence earlier this year when Sinn Fein broke up with the DUP and left the coalition administration. Now that the DUP is set to become the Tories’ partner in the incoming coalition government, its dual roles as the governing party in both Northern Ireland and London may make the situation in Belfast even more volatile.

As Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, has warned, the marriage between the Tory Party and the DUP may threaten peace in Northern Ireland, it got me thinking: Does Theresa May really have no better choice for partnership other than the DUP?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 20

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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