Tuesday, 13 June 2017

DUP =/= Sinn Fein

The election is over. Confounding all expectations, Jeremy Corbyn won 30 seats for the Labour Party, wiping out the Tories' narrow majority and putting us firmly in Hung Parliament territory. With the Lib Dems and the nationalist parties ruling out any kind of support for the Conservatives and throwing their weight behind Labour, the Tories have opened discussions with the DUP with the aim of negotiating a confidence-and-supply arrangement.

This has thrown a light on politics in Northern Ireland, and caused consternation to those on the Left. The various accusations are that:
  • The DUP are uncivilised because of their socially conservative views on gay marriage and abortion;
  • Any agreement between the Tories and the DUP would contravene the Good Friday Agreement, which requires the UK Government to be neutral re: Northern Ireland;
  • That the DUP are morally equivalent to Sinn Fein, and it is therefore hypocritical of the Tories to seek an alliance with them.

Firstly, the DUP are not fundamentally uncivilised. They have consistently opposed the legalisation of gay marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland; however, this is consistent with their Christian Democrat outlook. Virtually every political party in Northern Ireland shares the same views, including Sinn Fein and the SDLP, Labour's sister party in the province. Clearly, those views are not beyond the pale when the people holding them are casting votes in Labour's favour.

It is also worth noting that the very point of coalition politics is that you have to work with people with whom you do not necessarily agree. The Tories and Lib Dems did not make for natural bedfellows in the 2010-15 Parliament, yet they formed a functioning coalition. The DUP and Sinn Fein fundamentally disagree on virtually everything, yet they have shared power in Northern Ireland for years. Forming an alliance with another party does not automatically mean you agree with everything they stand for.

Secondly, an agreement between the DUP and the Tories does not necessarily compromise the Good Friday Agreement. The GFA requires the UK Government to be impartial in terms of brokering power-sharing between the Unionist and Republican parties in Northern Ireland. Obviously, if the DUP were to enter a formal coalition with the Tories, forming part of the UK Government, then this would be a clear conflict of interest. However, a formal coalition is not what is being proposed. The DUP are proposing a confidence-and-supply arrangement, where they would support the Government on confidence votes to keep them in office, but on a vote-by-vote basis thereafter. The Tories would, in exchange, adopt or co-operate with some DUP policies.

Therefore, whether or not the deal breaches the GFA depends entirely on what the DUP want in return. If, for example, the Tories offered support to the DUP in power-sharing negotiations, tried to pass more permissive laws regarding Orange Order parades or Unionist symbolism, or became hostile to the way Republican parties are funded, then they would be on dodgy ground. However, if the Tories simply increased infrastructure spending in Northern Ireland, then it's hard to see how this would be a problem.

Finally, the idea that the DUP are morally equivalent to Sinn Fein is wrong. The US, UK and Irish Governments have all alleged that Sinn Fein had direct links to the IRA, even going as far as to say that senior members of Sinn Fein served on the IRA Army Council. Members of Sinn Fein have been convicted and been imprisoned for terror offences. Despite a wealth of intelligence from reputable sources that closely link Sinn Fein with the IRA, they have continuously refused to acknowledge these links, and even now, their formal severance from such groups is murky.

The DUP have had similar links to loyalist paramilitary groups, which is distasteful to say the least, and unjustifiable. However, there are some mitigating factors, namely that the loyalist groups were formed in response to IRA terrorism, and thus arose from provocation. They offered to work with the police and military to end the IRA's campaign, which although misguided, was well-meaning. Finally, the DUP have been honest all the way along about their connections with loyalism, and have also been open about their severance of ties.

The DUP have had some murky dealings with violence during a troubled period in Northern Ireland's history, but attain some part of the moral high ground compared to Sinn Fein by at least being open, honest and transparent. Finally, it is worthy of note that loyalist violence arose as a consequence of republican terrorism. Whilst this is not a justification, it is a mitigating factor.

Furthermore, such criticism is rank hypocrisy coming from the Left, who have piled support behind Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has personal ties to Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's leader. He has also given outspoken historical support for the IRA's goals, taken inflammatory action by inviting former IRA members to Parliament weeks after a terrorist attack on the Brighton Hotel in an assassination attempt of the British Prime Minister, and famously described members of the proscribed terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah as his 'friends'. Quite simply, Corbyn and his ilk are in no position to criticise any relationship with the DUP.

Does this mean that any deal with the DUP is acceptable to the Tories? No. They do need to tread carefully - firm and staunch repudiation of political violence should be a centrepiece of any deal, as too should a reaffirmation of the UK Government's impartiality regarding Northern Ireland power-sharing. It is essential that the republican community in Northern Ireland do not regard the deal as breaching either the letter or spirit of the peace process. And it is also essential that the wider UK population do not see any deal as an excuse for the DUP to foist some of their more controversial opinions onto the country as a whole.