The Price Of Failure: Northern Ireland’s Protestants Throw British Politics Into Turmoil:

Have you ever heard of the expression “The Luck Of The Irish”? This “peculiar phrase” (states WiseGeek.com) has often been interpreted as simply meaning that (despite their turbulent history), the Irish are “inherently fortunate” and seem to be able to land on their feet when bad circumstances occur. It has also, however, been attributed to the large number of Irish miners who became rich by taking part in the gold & silver rush in the American west in the second half of the 19th century.

For Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the results of the UK General Election on June 8th has become their version of discovering “a pot of gold”. As the Huffington Post pointed out the following day, the DUP “might be about to take on a pivotal role in British politics”. Since 9th June, international attention has been focused on whether the ten DUP Members of Parliament will “prop up” the Conservative Government and so keep Theresa May in power as Prime Minister.

Although Theresa May has been excoriated by the British media (especially the many newspapers that supported her) for having conducted “a disastrous campaign” and thus winning far fewer constituencies than expected, she will still outnumber the combined opposition parties in the House of Commons if she has the support of the DUP. This would probably – so the Guardian has concluded – be on the basis of a “confidence & supply arrangement”, whereby the DUP would support the Conservatives’ main legislative programme rather than establishing a formal coalition. Despite the Government in theory needing 326 MP s in the 650-seat House of Commons to achieve a basic majority, in reality the required number is smaller: The Speaker and his three deputies don’t vote and the seven elected Sinn Fein MPs won’t attend because, as Republicans, they consider the institution to be “illegitimate” and refuse to swear an oath to the Queen. “This means a working majority actually needs 315 MPs” – which would be exceeded by the 318 Conservative and 10 DUP MPs.

The drawback with these calculations is that the DUP of course will want substantial rewards in exchange,such as (contends the BBC’s Parliamentary correspondent, Mark D’Arcy)“extra funding for all things Northern Ireland, localised tax concessions, more powers for the NI executive and the continuance of the open border with the Republic of Ireland (a member of the European Union)” – hence no checkpoints or customs controls, which “could arouse the anger of the hardline Conservative Brexiteers”.

The Guardian has similarly highlighted the “clear blue water” between the two parties, especially the DUP’s anti-abortion attitudes, its climate change scepticism, its disapproval of the Conservatives’ plans to change the welfare system for pensioners and its opposition to same-sex marriage – which has led the Scottish Conservative Leader, Ruth Davidson to demand reassurance from Theresa May that LGBT rights will not be eroded in return for DUP support. It is highly unlikely that the DUP would ever enter into any deal with the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, mainly because of “his past links with Sinn Fein and his sympathy with the IRA (Irish Republican Army)”.

Ireland is also known as “The Emerald Isle – mainly, according to “Irish Central.com”, because the description is “synonymous with the country’s rolling hills and resplendent green valleys”, though it was first portrayed as such in a poem by the 19th-century Belfast political radical William Drennan. The current population of the Republic – which became independent from Britain in 1922 – is estimated at 4,7748,513, of whom 84% are Catholic In the six counties of Northern Ireland, which remained with the UK, the figure is around 1.85 million. In the view of Pauline Hadaway, a writer with “Spiked”magazine, the partition of the island was designed precisely to maintain the supremacy of the Protestants/ Unionists/Loyalists in the north.

The “Good Friday” peace agreement of 10th April 1998 included a guarantee that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would not be changed without the consent of the majority of its people. The big problem now for the DUP – which, as its name indicates, represents the Unionist community – is that the Protestant population in the province has dropped below 50%, down to 48%, whereas the number of Catholics has risen to 45% and is continuing to increase. In the capital city of Belfast, the Catholics (who tend to be younger) comprise 49% of residents, whereas the “ageing” Protestant community has declined to 42%.

The new leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, has declared that Brexit will be a “disaster” for the province and that there should be a referendum on joining the Republic “as soon as possible”. For the moment, reports the Independent, opinion polls show that “a firm majority of NI residents, Catholics as well as Protestants, favour remaining in the UK. Nonetheless, Peter Shirlow, head of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University, considers that “if Brexit makes the Catholic support for staying with Britain slip away, a future referendum on Irish unification could be very, very tight”.

The decisive factor could be what happens to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It now exists, notes the BBC’s Business Presenter, Dominic O’Connell, virtually in name only and runs through farms,roads, hedges and even houses: “The only visible indication when crossing between the two countries is the change in speed limit signs from miles per hour to kilometres”. A reinstatement of a “hard border” could have “deep implications for the Northern Irish economy” as well as potentially undermining the peace process. In May, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, met business owners based near the border who could be negatively affected if trade tariffs are imposed between the UK and the EU. “If there is a will (he asserted) there is a way to resolve the Irish border situation”.

 

Filed under: Politics | Posted on June 10th, 2017 by Colin D Gordon

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