Date first published: 13/06/2017
Key sectors: all
Key risks: political stability
A formal agreement that involves Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) supporting a minority government in Westminster may sound the death knell for the Good Friday Agreement. The pact was already under threat as Sinn Fein, Northern Ireland’s largest republican party, and the DUP, its largest unionist party, failed to agree a new administration since the collapse of the Stormont government in January. British Prime Minister Theresa May appears to be swapping stability in Northern Ireland for stability for her government.
Ireland’s outgoing Prime Minister Enda Kenny is the most prominent figure to voice his concerns over a Conservative government supported by the DUP, while republicans in Northern Ireland have claimed it would remove Britain’s ability to act as a neutral negotiator in the ongoing crisis talks aimed at putting a Stormont executive together. On 11 June, May’s government confirmed James Brokenshire would remain Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, tasked with helping manage the negotiations . The same day Brokenshire announced that there would be no extensions to the current 29 June deadline, a date that itself is already an extension of talks that were supposed to have been completed in April.
Sinn Fein blames DUP for the failure to agree a Stormont government, insisting the party’s leader Arlene Foster cannot become First Minister again due to the Renewable Heat Initiative scandal, which brought down the previous Northern Ireland government in January. Naturally, the DUP blames Sinn Fein for the impasse. However, there are legitimate concerns over the incongruity of the DUP engaging in those negotiations at the same time as with the Conservatives. Why should the DUP not agree to direct rule, particularly when it has a large say in said rule? Furthermore, it is the DUP infamously opposed the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. What did it propose instead? Direct rule from Westminster.
That is not to say that a return to widespread political violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland is imminent or that the DUP will actively push for a revision of the Good Friday Agreement, which has largely secured peace for 20 years. After all it has benefitted, having been the largest party in Northern Ireland since 2003. Between 2003-2008 the Northern Ireland legislature was also vacant, amid a spat between DUP and Sinn Fein. While the period saw a slight rise in political violence, direct rule did not prompt a return to the level of unrest or frequency of terrorism seen during the Troubles.
Nevertheless, the situation shows few signs of pending improvement. Additionally, the rather blasé attitude expressed by the Conservative towards Irish and republican concerns – which they have yet to directly address as of the time of publication – will further undermine Sinn Fein’s willingness to engage in the process. Brokenshire has already been accused of supporting unionist positions, although these claims scarcely featured outside Northern Ireland, unsurprisingly given the dearth of coverage of the region in the mainstream British press. His refusal to extend the deadline amid his party’s talks with the DUP will only fuel these allegations.
Few have faith in May’s ability to last a full term as prime minister, despite her vows to do so. Her attempt to trade Northern Ireland’s stability for that in Westminster could rapidly backfire should 29 June pass without agreement, particularly if the British media returns its attention to Northern Ireland.