Tories playing Russian Roulette with the Northern Irish peace process
Earlier this year, we witnessed the death of the former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Provisional Irish Republican Army leader, Martin McGuinness. Questionable though his legacy may be, he was instrumental in brokering the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. For decades, loyalist forces, who wished for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, were locked in bloody conflict with republicans, who sought unification with the Republic of Ireland; the treaty halted this period of sectarian violence, known as The Troubles. Now, with the signing of its confidence-and- supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (D.U.P.) - alongside the upheaval of Brexit - the Conservative Party are doing their best to undermine the agreement. In short, they are putting the hard- won peace in Northern Ireland at risk.
Theresa May’s government affronts three fundamental tenets of the Good Friday Agreement: the neutrality of Westminster, the establishment and maintenance of a
Northern Irish Assembly and allowing a soft border to separate Northern Ireland from the Republic.
Let’s start with the language employed in the Tory-D.U.P. arrangement. Purportedly, the government recognises that ‘ultimate responsibility for the political stability of Northern Ireland rests with the UK government.’ Yet, there is a juxtaposition between this statement and the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which calls for ‘rigorous neutrality’ on Westminster’s part.
Pardon my scepticism, but how can neutrality be achieved when an incumbent government is in legion with the democratic mouthpiece of the loyalist camp? These concerns are heightened by the £1billon bung the D.U.P. have received, as well as an empowerment to review their support of government policy on a case-by- case basis. Inevitably, where tensions manifest between the Tories and the D.U.P., considerable concessions will be made to ensure the Tories make up the numbers necessary for a House of Commons majority; bargaining of this sort will see loyalist concerns prioritized over republican standpoints. Even Chris Patten, former Chairman of the Conservative party, concedes that this arrangement makes it ‘difficult for the government to show neutrality.’\
Although not a formal coalition (rather, a confidence-and- supply agreement), Patten’s comments make it ever clearer that the deal violates the Good Friday Agreement, the consequences of which are highlighted by the stalemate in Northern Ireland’s Assembly, Stormont. Currently, there is no functioning government at Stormont, following the assembly’s dissolution back in January. Whilst the debate surrounding an Irish Language Act has been a sticking-point preventing the assembly’s resumption, the Tory-D.U.P. deal has added an extra hurdle. Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill claims that talks in July, which aimed to reconcile grievances between themselves, the D.U.P. and the other parties at Stormont, broke down as a ‘consequence’ of the Tories’ reckless deal. Stormont, an institution of critical importance to the peace process, has therefore continued to be grinded to a halt due to the Tories’ failure to observe ‘rigorous neutrality’.
Ultimately, the biggest threat posed to peace is the creation of a hard border between the North and the Republic of Ireland, a potential feature of a hard Brexit; it is in the interest of both Sinn Fein and the D.U.P. to fight this. Only time will tell how effectively they can unite in spite of these additional strains. As for the Tories, they are, at best, ignorant of just how delicately balanced peace is Northern Ireland. At worst, they signed that deal in contempt of all those lost their lives in The Troubles and their bereaved families – not to mention those whose blood could spill in the future. Nonetheless, this deal, accompanied by the uncertainty surrounding the border, has augmented tensions dramatically.