The result of this month’s general election in the United Kingdom has been astonishing. Far from increasing their hold on power, as once predicted by pollsters, the Conservative party is now 8 MPs short of an overall majority in the House of Commons. Prime Minister Theresa May is hanging on by her fingernails, forming a minority government with the support of Northern Ireland’s Protestant and socially-conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 MPs may provide her with the tiny working majority required to pass a Queen’s Speech and budget. The negotiations between the parties have not gone smoothly. But t he solution May has proposed—and the response it has generated—illustrates how precarious the unity of the United Kingdom is today.
The Conservative-DUP deal does offer the prospect of a genuinely national government, one that can bring together the UK’s constituent nations of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Theresa May’s minority Conservative party will need to rely upon its 13 Scottish seats as well as the support of 10 Northern Irish MPs, and will need to balance the sometimes competing interests of these different parts of the UK. This challenge should echo within the culture of the party that is still known by its title, “Conservative and Unionist.” But Theresa May’s suggestion of a deal with the socially-conservative DUP has caused alarm within her own party—and outrage elsewhere.
During the election, the campaigns of the major parties had largely ignored Northern Irish issues, despite the significance of this area having the UK’s only land border with the EU. The exit poll, released shortly after voting closed, did not include data from Northern Ireland voters. The predilection for crisis among the province’s major parties has long been toxic within British politics—a fact that many unionist politicians and their supporters have been slow to grasp. This explains why, during the election campaign, the Liberal Democrats were included in the BBC’s nationally televised debates while the DUP were not—despite the fact that both were defending the same number of seats in the same Parliament. This also explains why the BBC’s long list of national results as ranked by party includes reference to the 771 votes given to the Workers Revolutionary Party and the 469 votes given to the Social Democratic Party but fails to refer to parties in Northern Ireland, like Traditional Unionist Voice, that attract much stronger support. For many British journalists, the politics of Northern Ireland just don’t matter.
But Northern Ireland politics are very much in view now, as the media responses to the Conservative-DUP deal illustrate. Journalists from across the English political spectrum, as if suddenly waking up to an exotic political culture, are describing the DUP as far-right, with disgraceful if not actually dangerous positions on “social issues” such as abortion and same-sex marriage. According to Owen Jones, a widely read columnist, they are “gay-hating terrorist sympathisers.”
But many of these criticisms are wide of the mark. The DUP are not “far-right.” An analysis of their voting record in Parliament indicates that on matters of financial policy they tend to vote with Labour. Their position on abortion is shared by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a “sister party” of the British Labour party, with Sinn Fein proposing only minor modification of this view. Setting aside the constitutional issue, it is only on the matter of same-sex marriage that the DUP—and, likely, many of the 292,316 people who voted for them—are distinguishable on “social issues” from the other larger parties in the province. Neither is this a protestant peculiarity. Ahead of the election, Northern Ireland’s Catholic bishops encouraged the faithful to use their votes to protect the sanctity of life—that is, to resist abortion—while encouraging candidates for office to “reflect on the importance of the family based on marriage between one man and one woman, as the foundation and cornerstone of society and therefore deserving of special recognition and protection in policy and law.”
Within the broader context of Northern Ireland, the DUP’s position on “social issues” is not peculiar, therefore, but neither is their position on finance best described as “conservative.” Their strategy is to seek the extension rather than the limitation of the state, and the success of this policy, widely shared among Northern Ireland parties, has contributed to the fact that the area has the UK’s highest public spending per person, with tax revenues of £8,580 per person in 2016 falling far short of the public spending per person of £14,020. Northern Ireland’s taxpayers contribute little more than half of what it costs to run the province.
This context will feed into Theresa May’s difficulty of balancing the expectations of the DUP with the more socially progressive and fiscally conservative views of her own MPs. For Ruth Davidson, the energetic and now also hugely successful leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, is a strong supporter of LGBT rights, and over the weekend used her Twitter feed to greet the prospect of a DUP pact with a link to a lecture on same-sex marriage she last year gave in Belfast. As Theresa May heralded the prospect of working with “our friends in the DUP,” Ruth Davidson insisted that her loyalty to her party came after her commitment to LGBT rights. At the same time, in an article in the Belfast Telegraph, the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, confirmed that she “valued the Union above everything else.” Foster’s comment, if taken at face value, indicates as precisely as Davidson’s the scale of values on which the Conservative-DUP pact will turn. If Davidson puts the promotion of LGBT rights above the interests of party, and Foster puts the defence of the union above her resistance to LGBT rights, the Conservative-DUP pact may challenge the political culture of both of its constituent partners: the DUP leader may, effectively, have announced the end of her party’s culture war.
The Conservative-DUP pact would likely be game changing. But such a pact is unlikely to last. Theresa May will need to gain the support of the 10 DUP MPs without alienating the supporters of same-sex marriage within her own party, and especially the 13 Scottish MPs who may or may not be plotting an independent future. She will need to form a government that takes full account of the fact that the social values of the several political cultures of the United Kingdom are increasingly incompatible. This is likely to be an impossible task. The pact set up in part to preserve the union may actually advertise the incompatibility of the cultures of its most necessary supporters—and thus contribute to its demise.
The media response to the Conservative-DUP deal should certainly give the Northern Irish MPs some pause for thought. When Northern Ireland issues were off the table of national politics, it was easy for the province’s voters to underestimate the differences between the “social values” that are widely shared on both sides of the sectarian division, as evidenced by the commonalities between the DUP manifesto and the guidance of the Catholic bishops, and those that are current in the rest of the UK. The sudden elevation of the DUP offers a lightning rod for criticism, illustrates that their loyalty is to a Britain that no longer exists, and proves that in terms of social issues they have far more in common with faithful Irish Catholics than with most friends of the union in Westminster.
But this is not to propose a solution for the intractable problem of the future of the province. The problem in Northern Ireland is structural. Its position as a “failed state,” raising only around half of its running costs, militates against the possibility of any near-future integration with the Republic of Ireland. This works well for unionists, who use this dependence upon external finance to further embed the province within the structures of the UK, but presents a problem for Irish nationalists who—having moved support to Sinn Fein, are now without any Parliamentary representation—will need to oversee a significant reduction in state benefits if they are ever to achieve the reunification of the island.
In calling this election, Theresa May gambled and lost. Her attempt to shore up the disastrous results of this gamble by making a deal with one of the most controversial parties in Parliament will almost certainly spell the end of her government. And in exposing the stark differences between the political cultures and social values of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it could further undermine the cause of unionism in Northern Ireland while offering nothing to support nationalist aspirations. The pro-European “saboteurs” have not been crushed—and the union may have been further imperiled.
Crawford Gribben is professor of early modern British history at Queen’s University Belfast and author of John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat.