Seb Cooke comments on the deal struck between the Tory party and the Democratic Unionists.
The UK government’s attitude to Northern Ireland, which is revealing itself as the Tory-DUP deal takes shape, should concern us all. On Tuesday of this week, Secretary of State Damien Green was asked whether he thinks the DUP deal – worth at least £1.5 billion – would scupper the power sharing negotiations in Northern Ireland that have been going on for several months. His answer was that Sinn Fein and others wouldn’t walk away from these negotiations with the DUP because they wouldn’t want to walk away from the cash on offer.
The £1.5 billion promised to the DUP in return for their support for a Tory government should be distributed by the Northern Ireland executive. That can’t happen without a deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Damien Green and the government’s attitude is that the prospect of a large pile of cash should ensure that Sinn Fein agrees to a deal.
Putting aside the inherent problems with the power sharing agreement for a minute, Green’s response is a complete denigration of the set up which underpins the peace process model.
The power sharing agreement has broken down for serious political reasons, namely a scandal involving the DUP leader Arlene Foster, yet the government’s attitude is that the problem can be solved by throwing money at it. And not just any money, but money which has been secured via a deal with the pro-Tory and pro-Union side in Northern Irish politics, the DUP. So the government is trying to force Sinn Fein into a power sharing agreement that will be of inherent benefit to an opposing political force, but also one that they can’t walk away from. The deal, then, isn’t only about money received: it also directly intervenes in negotiations by strengthening the hand of the DUP.
This is a remarkable attitude in that it threatens a move away from the strategy pursued by the British state in Northern Ireland since Thatcher.
Damien Green could have acknowledged the seriousness of the situation in the current negotiations and talked about the need for talks to resolve the issues, and left the money out of it. That is the line pursued by the former Tory PM John Major. Instead Green treated the negotiations with contempt by making out that the grievances of Sinn Fein and the wider population of Northern Ireland could be bought off via a deal with the DUP. What is the point of negotiating anything, people might ask, if it all just comes down to the sum of money on the table anyway?
The British state has never been an ‘honest broker’ in Northern Ireland, but it has tried to move away from acting as a colonial power waging and supporting violence against Republicans. The idea that the UK government cannot revert to this role is naive, and it is this concern that was expressed by John Major last week. Major wants the United Kingdom to operate as a modern capitalist entity, not to be dragged backwards. I don’t think Damien Green or the government wants to go back either, but their attitude to Northern Ireland expressed repeatedly in their dealings with the DUP does represent a shift in that direction and toward the notion of direct rule by Westminster in coalition with Unionist forces.
The consequences of that go way beyond the next two years or the sum of £1.5 billion.