As the UK woke up on the 9th of June to hear that the Conservatives had failed to reach a majority, speculation quickly turned to the prospect of coalition.
The only party both willing and able to form a coalition with the Conservatives is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP operates only in Northern Ireland and is controversial due to allegations of its entanglement with pro-union terrorist organisations who were active during The Troubles.
A formal coalition was quickly ruled out by the Prime Minister, however, she did confirm that the Conservatives would be seeking a ‘supply and confidence’ deal with the DUP.
Simply put, the Government will negotiate a deal with the DUP to secure their vote in favour of Government policies. In return, the DUP will expect the UK Government to both support and advance specific DUP policies. The Prime Minister argues that such a deal will allow the Government to form an effective minority administration which can pass legislation in the Commons efficiently.
However, some commentators have voiced concern that any deal between the DUP and the Conservatives runs the risk of undermining the fragile peace that has existed in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement.
One of the key factors in this is that the devolved Northern Executive– formed upon the basis that Republicans and Unionists must be equal partners who work together – collapsed in January 2017, after a bitter dispute between the leader of the DUP and the leader of the largest Republican party, Sinn Fein.
Attempts to re-establish normal governance in Northern Ireland have been unsuccessful, and it is the British government, through the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (James Brokenshire), who are supposed to be acting as mediators. The neutrality of Mr Bokenshire has now been called into question as any deal between the UK Government and the DUP damages the credibility of the role and risks undermining the whole process.
As leader of the Alliance party, Naomi Long, commented – the deal between the DUP and the Conservatives:
“has made the possibility of successful talks more remote – there is now no credibility for the Tory government to be an independent chair, putting the entire process in real danger of collapsing.”
“This region only works on the basis of sharing and interdependence. That is made all the more difficult when one side of the two diametrically opposed parties here has untold influence over the government.”
In addition, while the details of the deal are not yet known, the DUP has previously published a document which outlined their “key priorities for discussion with the parties which could form the next government.”
This document was published in 2015, when speculation that the UK was heading for another coalition was rife. As such, it forms a reasonable outline of what will likely be included in any discussion and subsequent deal with the UK Government.
Some of the policies, like maintaining military spending or continuing Northern Ireland’s 100% regional aid status, are uncontroversial – other policies less so. In particular, the DUP differs with the Conservative party on the terms of Brexit, with the DUP favouring a ‘soft-Brexit’ due to the border issues between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Additionally, the DUP has strong objections to same-sex-marriage and abortion rights, consistently blocking attempts to introduce legislation which would legalise these issues. Such policies have already begun to worry Conservative politicians, with leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, explicitly seeking reassurance from the Prime Minister that LGBT+ rights will not be rolled back.
For Northern Ireland, the document also contains a number of policies which are popular with the DUP’s pro-union base, but a significant portion of those policies are also deeply contentious with Northern Ireland’s nationalist community.
Such policies include ensuring that military personnel cannot face investigations into their actions during conflicts if they have already been investigated. They have also spoken about extending this to removing funding for so-called Legacy Investigations which would investigate crimes committed by British soldiers during The Troubles.
This policy is highly controversial and has already been a point of contention for the DUP and Sin Fein during negotiations to re-form Stormont. If approved by May’s government, there is likely to be vocal disapproval from the Republican community in Northern Ireland.
It is important to note, however, that the details of the deal are not yet known and the UK Government will be keen to avoid agreeing to any controversial policies which could undermine the Good Friday Agreement and risk the peace. While the DUP will hold significantly more power as part of a ‘supply and confidence’ deal than they would have held as an opposition party of 10 MPs, they are not large enough in number to fully protect the Government from back-bench rebellion. As the leader of the Scottish Conservatives has already indicated that her 13 MPs will vote as a bloc, and other Tory MPs have also indicated concerns, rebellion is a real possibility.
Whatever the detail of a Conservative/DUP deal, it is clear that politics in Northern Ireland will be even more difficult to navigate than they already are.