When Bernadette Devlin was elected to parliament as a republican socialist in 1969, she used her maiden speech to proclaim “there never was born an Englishman who understands the Irish people.”
On Friday morning, the newly-important Democratic Unionists (DUP) became Britain’s most Googled political party. It seems Devlin had a point. I grew up and spent the majority of my life in Northern Ireland, and now live in England. It's clear the UK doesn’t understand us, but since the Conservatives are threatening to form a government with the DUP, they’re going to have to.
The DUP are the largest party in Northern Ireland, both in Westminster and devolved Stormont. Formed by Christian fundamentalists in 1971, the party was created in protest to a mainstream unionism they saw as too generous in its granting of civil rights to Catholics (until the late 1960s, Northern Catholics were systematically denied proper access to housing, voting, public employment, and political representation.) They have slowly surpassed that ‘mainstream’ Unionism to become, by far, the dominant representative of the Unionist community. Given the party was set up in reaction to Northern Irish Catholics’ fight for justice, their hostility to basic rights should come as no surprise, but should be, and has been, a concern.
Under the leadership of Ian Paisley, the DUP would eventually forgo their vocal opposition to the Good Friday Agreement, coming round the promise of its institutions and government with arch-enemies Sinn Féin in 1997. However, their fundamentalism remains a focal point of their appeal.
Their opposition to LGBT rights is long documented. They continually veto same-gender marriage in the North, their leadership was active in the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign of the late 1970s and their Deputy First Minister Ian Paisley Jr (son of the party’s founder, Ian Paisley Sr) has called, and defending calling, the LGBT community “repulsive.” They are also strident opponents of reproductive justice, party leader Arlene Foster saying on record: “I would not want abortion to be as freely available here as it is in England and don’t support the extension of the 1967 act.” Northern Irish abortion laws prohibit choice in nearly all circumstances, leaving roughly 1,000 pregnant people to travel to England per year, and more to self-source abortion medication. The DUP remain fundamentally opposed to even the slightest relaxation of this law.
These policies hurt thousands. But they mattered little to most British people - until this week.
The Stormont Assembly power-sharing agreement between North Ireland’s nationalists and unionists allowed the country’s parties to govern in permanent coalition. Having been uneasy for years, it finally collapsed in January. Among the sources of its discontent were socialist Sinn Féin’s unwillingness to inflict austerity in line with Westminster orders, and the threat of Brexit to the Irish island and its border.
These tensions came to a climax in late 2016, when the DUP were accused of mismanagement of public funds in a locally infamous renewable energy scheme. The government broke down, leaving the DUP impotent to act out some of the most regressive hard-right policy in Europe.
Theresa May called an election despite this breakdown. It is unclear that, in her quest for a supermajority, the resultant power vacuum in Northern Ireland even crossed her mind. Now the DUP are kingmakers in that botched quest. Talks between the parties, but it seems that they will unite around their strident nationalism in order to ensure May steers Brexit, with DUP sources claiming that they want Nigel Farage to play a pivotal role in the exit negotiations. It remains unclear what the terms of the agreement will be, but Tories and opponents alike are concerned that the DUP’s social conservatism is too risky a presence in government.
So far it seems the DUP do not have to lift a finger to roll back our rights. It is a senior Tory, not a DUP official, Owen Paterson who has already suggested women’s bodies as a peace offering in this coalition of contempt. A DUP-Tory agreement may involve a vote on decreasing term limits on abortion, which would be in line with Theresa May’s long-held personal view, and would disproportionately affect women in Ireland. They seek late abortions at ten times the rate of their British counterparts due to delays in funding, diagnoses, and support.
David Cameron’s ‘compassionate’ conservatism matched a harsh austerity with some warmer gestures on marriage and equality. In contrast, May’s voting record on LGBT rights leaves little to be admired, voting against reducing the age of consent for homosexual acts in line with heterosexual couples, voted against allowing LGBT couples to adopt, and notably absented herself from a number of other key debates.
As Home Secretary, she refused to defend the abused detainee women of Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre and her outspoken contempt for ‘left-wing human rights lawyers’ who ‘harangue and harass’ British soldiers must serve as catnip to the DUP. They have long held that British soldiers should not be tried for murdering fourteen peaceful civil rights protestors on Derry’s Bloody Sunday. Why feign surprise that May has joined hands with the most right-wing force in Westminster? This is not simply the last gasp of a politician clinging to a fatally compromised mandate; it is a checkpoint in her unstoppable lurch to the right. She believes in a churchy colonial conservatism, wreaked onto a nation at large. That has been the DUP’s model for years.
We should not exaggerate what is not yet to be seen. The DUP’s concrete influence in Westminster may prove slight. They may provide back-up, rather than take an active role in policy-making. But the quiet misery of life under the DUP will continue in Northern Ireland whether they are kingmakers or sideshows in Westminster, and to ask how this affects Great Britain is to miss the point. Theresa May is trying to make up her numbers, and she is putting the whole of Northern Ireland at risk in doing so.
In ongoing talks to get Stormont off the ground, the British government are supposed to be honest peace-brokers. Given their drive to push austerity and a hard Brexit, this already seems a pipe dream. Now the entire Tory government needs the DUP to function, they will be about as neutral as killer whales at a pool party. Sure, May’s embrace of this party has been hard for me, a boy who grew up seeing DUP politicians arguing that I should never be able to adopt, because I am apparently more likely than most to abuse my children. But it is more than this; it is a right-wing crackdown on the political solution we are proud of. It is an existential threat to the institutions of peace, which our parents and grandparents lacked.
The British have never understood the Irish. They have never wanted to. Our parties are listed as “Other” in exit polls and seat counts, the collapse of our government is ignored, and the threat of Brexit to our island does not widely feature. Our history only figured during this election in so far as it could throw mud at Jeremy Corbyn, who, like most on the British left spent the 1980s standing up against mass internment, maltreatment of prisoners, and civilian killings.
How much might better things look were we as interested in the living, breathing reality of Northern Ireland? Had we interrogated the DUP rather than letting it through the back door of power? Instead, we have a Prime Minister-in-waiting held up by Christian fundamentalists, willing to concede hard-fought gains on everything from peace in Northern Ireland, to fifty years of reproductive justice.
Ignorance on Northern Ireland has always been a blind spot of British politics. They might soon find out they missed a juggernaut.