“Who?” said three-quarters of the electorate.
“WHAT?” exclaimed the rest.
Theresa May, having thrown away her parliamentary majority, had announced that she would seek the support of the DUP.
‘When the Irish Free State was established,’ writes H.V. Morton in In Search of Ireland (1930), ‘six of the nine counties of Ulster expressed themselves ready to die rather than become part of it. They decided to form themselves into a political entity with a parliament of their own. And this is Northern Ireland.’
Let’s go back a bit. It starts with Henry II and some opportunistic land-grabbing. Under Elizabeth I the land-grab became serious, and Oliver Cromwell developed it into full-scale conquest accompanied by massacre and deportation. Scottish Presbyterians were encouraged to settle in Ireland as a way of consolidating the land taken and establishing a Protestant power base in a Catholic country.
The accession of the Catholic monarch James II to the English throne brought brief hope to the Irish, which guttered at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), when Catholic troops supporting the now-exiled James were defeated by William of Orange, a Protestant Dutchman whom the English parliamentarians had invited to take the throne. The defeated Irish were subjected to Penal Laws brought in to subjugate them and suppress Irish culture. After a rebellion in 1798, inspired by the French Revolution, Britain passed the Act of Union, incorporating Ireland into the United Kingdom.
The following century saw the potato famine, which affected a number of countries but was made catastrophic in Ireland by British government policies, mass emigration as a result of the famine, and some limited progress towards democracy: a small minority of Catholics was given the vote.
An independence struggle followed the Easter Rising of 1916 and lasted until Partition in 1921, when the south became a Crown Dominion as the Irish Free State, and the northern six counties remained part of Britain as a largely self-governing province.
A Belfast businessman took Morton to see the palace being built for the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont. “What are you going to do with the place when Ireland becomes one country?” the writer teased.
‘“We’ll never join in with the South,” he said indignantly… “All we want is bacon from Limerick and stout from Dublin.”
“Is it right that the industrial North should be a separate entity in any country?”
“How could we be ruled by a lot of Catholics,” he blazed up.’
That was it. In Northern Ireland the Protestants were a majority. If Ireland were united – the goal of Irish nationalists, including most Catholics – they would be outnumbered.
Ireland achieved full independence in 1949. In Northern Ireland, the Protestants governed through the Ulster Unionist Party. But tensions were rising. The Catholic minority was suffering discrimination in housing and employment, and a civil rights movement provoked a savage response from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (90% Protestant). In the 1960s sectarian violence forced thousands of people out of their homes, mainly in Catholic areas (there was by now a sharp sectarian divide between neighbourhoods in Belfast).
At this point there arose a fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian preacher with a powerful pair of lungs. In his long career, he was to roar “I denounce you, Antichrist!” at the Pope in the European Parliament and “Save Ulster from Sodomy!” on the streets of Belfast. His name was Ian Paisley and I was once told by a Belfast journalist that he was a very good constituency MP. He had been behind the repression of the civil rights movement.
In an increasingly polarised situation, the British Government took the fatal step of sending in troops to keep the peace. The Irish Republican Army, born in the struggle for Irish independence, took up the task of defending Catholics. It perceived the British troops as an occupying army, which they increasingly resembled. Loyalist paramilitary groups emerged; one, the Ulster Volunteer Force, petrol-bombed Catholic homes, businesses and schools. Loyalists and IRA killed each other, the IRA fought the Army and the RUC, and civilians died in the crossfire or because they’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time or somebody thought they were informers.
In 1971 Dr Paisley founded the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party.
A lethal tit-for-tat was developing: violence was followed by repression, which provoked further violence. The British Government introduced internment without trial. The IRA embarked on a bombing campaign in mainland Britain. The British Government re-imposed direct rule. IRA prisoners in the Maze prison embarked on a hunger strike, and ten died. Paratroopers of the British Army killed 13 civil rights protesters on a march. The IRA blew up a hotel in Brighton and narrowly missed Margaret Thatcher.
“No surrender!” bellowed Dr Paisley.
Whitehall was trying diplomacy as well as counter-terrorism. The Sunningdale Agreement (1973) attempted to establish power-sharing and a cross-border Council of Ireland. It collapsed under concerted Loyalist opposition, led by Dr Paisley, in the course of which the Ulster Defence Association killed 33 people in Dublin with car bombs. The Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) would have given the Irish Government an advisory role in the province’s affairs; it was rejected by Irish nationalists because it acknowledged that Northern Ireland was part of the UK, and was ferociously opposed as treason by Loyalists.
“Never, never, never, never!” thundered Dr Paisley outside Belfast town hall.
The IRA lobbed a mortar into the garden of 10 Downing Street and narrowly missed John Major.
Both sides were trapped in the violence, and it was making the British Government look like Tamburlane. Whitehall had been talking secretly to Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, for a long time. But there were two apparently immovable stumbling-blocks: the first was that the Government insisted the IRA give up its weapons before any peace was agreed, and the IRA refused to give up its weapons until peace had been agreed. The second was the Rev. Ian Paisley.
The task of crafting the Northern Ireland peace accord took immensely patient and skilful negotiation. Among those involved in it were John (now sir John) Major, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton’s envoy George Mitchell, chief negotiator Jonathan Powell, Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, the Taoiseach of Ireland Bertie Ahern, John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (Irish nationalist) and David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists. Dr Paisley’s DUP, now on its way to becoming the largest Unionist party, obstructed.
An international treaty and known ever since as the Good Friday Agreement, it was agreed on Friday 10 April 1998, and came into force the following year. It established a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly in which power would be shared between two blocs, unionist and Irish nationalist. Its guarantors were the Governments of Britain and Ireland, who would mediate in case of dispute. The First Minister was David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party; the deputy First Minister (who has equal powers) Seamus Mallon of the SDLP. The DUP, which had opposed the peace process all the way, nevertheless took seats in the Assembly.
A turbulent peace descended, but it was peace. The IRA put its weapons beyond use. Meanwhile, politics were moving away from the centre. Dr Paisley’s DUP grew to eclipse the more moderate UUP, and the moderately-nationalist SDLP lost ground to Sinn Féin. In 2007 Ian Paisley was elected First Minister with, as his opposite number, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander. They got on very well.
Power-sharing has on occasion broken down, sometimes for years, but talks have put it on the road again. It was up and running in January 2017, more than two years after Dr Paisley’s death, when a scandal about a renewable energy scheme overseen by Arlene Foster, the current DUP leader, provoked the resignation of Martin McGuinness. This brought about the collapse of the Assembly, since Sinn Féin would not nominate a replacement.
Now Theresa May, desperate for the seats she has lost, proposes to make up for them by taking the DUP into a “confidence and supply” partnership.
If she does not understood how totally inappropriate this is, she is not fit to be Prime Minister. She has taken to using an old name for the Tories, the “Conservative and Unionist Party.” But that referred to the Ulster Unionists (UUP), a centrist party that worked with the peace process. The DUP, fundamentalist, homophobic, anti-abortion, Creationist, climate-change-denying and the lineal descendant of its founder, is a monstrosity in the politics of mainland Britain. And it will want money in return for its support: £2 billion, reportedly. That money will come out of the funding of schools and public services that are already cut to the bone in the rest of the UK.
But the main reason why it is unacceptable is that for the British Government, which is a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and an arbiter in the power-sharing process, and therefore has to be impartial, to be depending on one of the two main parties in that process for its survival in the House of Commons is impossible. This has been said by Sir John Major, Jonathan Powell, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, and by many others. If the Government is not trusted to be impartial, that puts the power-sharing arrangement in jeopardy. The power-sharing is built on the peace, but the peace, in turn, depends on the power-sharing.
“The hard men,” Sir John Major warned, “are still lurking there in the corners of the community.”
We know they are. Every now and then they do something violent and stupid which is not as pointless as it seems. They liked the violence and they want it back.
Does Theresa May care about any of this? No. There is nothing she won’t sacrifice to hang on to power. What she plans to do with that power threatens the future of Britain. What she will risk in order to hang on to it threatens a peace long laboured for in Ireland by men and women beside whom she is a political pygmy.