How will the General Election affect the chances of a return to power sharing in Northern Ireland?

The DUP are in ascendancy, but democracy and peace in Northern Ireland will pay the price.

Power sharing in Northern Ireland has been one of the great political achievements of recent times. For all its faults, it has ensured a consistent (though often shaky) settlement which has maintained the balance of power between both nationalist and unionist communities, and ensured that both sides continue to have their voices heard in Stormont. But with the Democratic Unionist Party now holding the upper hand in a deal to prop up a bloodied Conservative Party clinging on to power, any return to a legitimate form of power sharing is in peril.

The political settlement created with the Good Friday Agreement has enabled a workable and peaceful system of power sharing among the unionist and nationalist parties in Stormont. As part of the agreement, to ensure the balance of power between either side the UK Government takes on the responsibility of “honest broker” in power sharing negotiations, a role which falls predominantly on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire.

To play devil’s advocate, it is likely that had Jeremy Corbyn found himself Prime Minister after the election, his premiership would have presented major difficulties in ensuring that the British Government plays the part of honest broker in restoring power showering. His well-documented and much maligned history of support for the republican movement during the Troubles, often at the expense of furthering peace in the region, would likely have led to outcry from unionist communities in Northern Ireland.

But political reality has gifted the Conservatives with executive power, provided that they do indeed reach a workable deal with the DUP, whose own history has been intricately connected with loyalist sectarianism. As long as the DUP does indeed agree to a deal of confidence and supply with the Conservatives, therefore positioning themselves so close to the UK Government, it is extremely hard to see how the devolved assembly in Stormont can be legitimately restored.

Fundamentally, the DUP will be the biggest winners, by a large margin. Despite an outcry on mainland Britain from those now becoming familiar with the political positioning of the DUP, in reality it would be highly surprising to see the party cave in to demands from Orange Lodges to reinstate banned sectarian marches or bonfires, if the party are in fact serious about a return to power sharing.  The DUP will not push their controversial social agenda on to the rest of Britain when much of this can be made law in Northern Ireland through the Assembly. Indeed, when it comes to issues like abortion, much of it already is law.

In return for a deal at Westminster, DUP leader Arlene Foster will be looking for bang for her buck. Top of the list will be an assurance from the UK government to protect the Fresh Start Agreement (which provides over £500 million of Government money to tackle the underlying causes of sectarianism), and to ensure greater investment more generally in the region. The outcome will be more electoral influence for the DUP in Northern Ireland, and the entrenchment of Arlene Foster’s position as leader of her party.

Sinn Fein themselves are now presented with greater obstacles to the return of a peaceful power sharing deal. In March this year, an election was held in Northern Ireland following the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister in protest against, among several other DUP related issues, Arlene Foster’s financial mismanagement of the Renewable Heat Incentive. Prior to the General Election, Sinn Fein made it clear that they would not re-enter power sharing for as long as Foster remained First Minister. But now that the DUP are at the heart of the UK Government during power sharing negotiations, it would not be too hard to imagine the difficulties, both politically and in principle, which Sinn Fein would have in reaching a deal with an invigorated and empowered DUP.

As for Sinn Fein, their tradition of abstentionism means that the Conservative government will find it much easier to survive. But it also means that the cause of Irish nationalism in Westminster is not only dealt a blow by the heightened influence of the DUP, but completely absent following the defeat of Northern Ireland’s more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party’s three MPs. With the DUP in ascendancy in Parliament, and with Arlene Foster’s position only strengthened, a legitimate return to power sharing will be a bitter pill for Sinn Fein to swallow. There would be little to stop the DUP from accusing their opponents of wrecking the chances of power sharing. Any hand of friendship in Stormont from the DUP to Sinn Fein is a poisoned chalice, extended in full knowledge that Sinn Fein and much of the nationalist community are backed in to a corner against an emboldened DUP insistent on gerrymandering the balance of power in Northern Ireland.

The history of the DUP has proven them to be shrewd political negotiators, who along with Sinn Fein have navigated social and often sectarian divides to ensure a functioning governing body in Stormont, and they will be willing and able to make this coalition work.

But influence comes at a high price. In Northern Ireland peace is still a precious thing, achieved in large part through a system of cooperation at Stormont that is enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. Sectarianism is an old wound that has not yet fully closed, and the DUP risk pulling it wide open. The successes of the Northern Ireland peace process, and the healing that it is bringing for so many communities, could unravel before our eyes.

 

Tyler Hanley is a Young Fabian member. Follow him on twitter at @HanleyTG

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