Dancing with the DUP

It has been a tragic and traumatic few weeks in the UK, as the country has been shaken by terrorist incidents as well as the most awful and appalling fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower. This period has also been momentous in politics, following an election that produced a hung parliament and as Brexit talks began. Strong and stable government does not look likely at the moment, as the Conservatives look to assemble sufficient numbers in Parliament by seeking the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

There are many reasons why many voters across the UK might fear the Conservative minority government’s reliance on the DUP, such as its socially conservative attitudes out of kilter with the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, potential pork-barrelling, or because of the ingrained instability that a minority government propped up by a small party entails, but perhaps the biggest concern should lie with this arrangement’s effects on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has a distinct political and constitutional place within the UK, and there is currently no devolved power-sharing executive at Stormont, following the resignation of Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister and an extraordinary election that ensued. The law was hastily amended so that First Minister and deputy First Minister could be appointed within 108 days instead of 14 days of the first meeting of the Assembly to form an executive, however even that time is running out too, on 29 June 2017.

The UK government should have and should be seen as having a neutral, impartial role as mediator in the affairs of Northern Ireland. With an agreement or understanding of some sort between the Conservatives and DUP, there will certainly be an impression that the Government is beholden to one of the parties in Northern Ireland and questions will be asked whether the Government can fulfil its role as an honest broker. The situation would become even more difficult, if there proves to be no way out of the current impasse with or without another extraordinary election, and direct rule is imposed.

Given the internal split among the Conservatives (and Labour) on the exact form of Brexit and the precarious parliamentary arithmetic, there is likely to be a permanent sense of impermanency about the Government, and the Conservative dalliance with the DUP may turn out to be brief yet consequential to the peace process in Northern Ireland: who is dancing to whose tunes?