World Politics

The DUP-Tory Deal: A View From Irish Revolutionaries

DUP / Conservative party deal

The future is bright, the future is Orange!

20 June 2017

A Conservative minister remarked quietly after the election that there would be many roads and hospitals built in Northern Ireland as a result of a DUP confidence and supply arrangement with his party. The assumption was that a large bribe would be paid and that it would benefit everyone in the North. Certainly there will be a bribe and it will contain some populist flourishes, but overall benefit will be slight. After all, this is a party that has just blown £500 million of public money in a corrupt “green heating” scheme. The main economic goal of this far-right party is to obtain funding for a public-private investment fund – a honey pot for failing businesses that would be open to the usual unrestrained corruption and leave the poor where they were before. The delay seems to be around the conflicting right-wing positions on Brexit and on the insistence by the DUP on sectarian concessions that are difficult for the British to openly concede on.

Almost all of the discussion in relation to re-establishing a local administration in the North of Ireland following the Westminster election is focused on political aspects - whether or not a “confidence and supply” arrangement between the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist Party breaches the Good Friday agreement.

British neutrality

Gerry Adams told Theresa May that she is in breach. In a statement to reporters outside Downing Street on 15th June, Adams said: 

"We told her very directly that she was in breach of the Good Friday Agreement, and we itemised those matters in which she was in default in relation to that agreement."

Yet, although there are many unwelcome aspects and threats in a closer relationship between the DUP and the Conservatives, what is really remarkable is Adams’ belief that the status quo ante involved any level of neutrality on the part of the British or that the Good Friday Agreement or any of its constant redrafts in any way restricts or binds Britain as an imperialist power.

The political foundation of the Good Friday Agreement, the fiction of Britain having no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Ireland, is gone. This is made evident by the DUP pact with the Conservative government but is not the cause.  British Secretary James Brokenshire has been acting as the tribune for loyalism in a very open way, but predecessor Theresa Villiers was not far behind and the British have always acted to placate their unionist base and deflate the expectations of nationalists. British sponsorship of loyalism is what underlines the political settlement.  As Theresa May said during the election, the British government will never be neutral on Ireland.

Sinn Fein “revolt”

The dynamic of the political battle today flows from that reality. In a vice between Britain and loyalism and with Irish capitalism demanding stability, Sinn Fein have capitulated over and over again, settling for their share of the sectarian cake and accepting that there will be no real reform. The cost had been a gradual erosion of their support, until in 2016 the level of corruption and sectarian humiliation led to a revolt of their supporters and Sinn Fein were forced to change course – demanding that all the old promises that were part of the agreement and that they had let slide now be instituted if the political structures were to continue.

Sin Fein pulled the plug on the assembly, massively increased their vote, increased their vote again in the Westminster election and appealed to the British to play fair. However in a series of interviews during the March election DUP spokespeople underlined the fact that they had never agreed to reform elements of the Good Friday Agreement. Former British secretary of state Peter Hain explained that, although the British had included a section in the St. Andrews Agreement on an Irish language act, it “was not written in stone”. The DUP stood four-square against reform. British guarantees were worthless and meant only to get Sinn Fein inside the tent. The June Westminster vote saw the DUP give Sinn Fein the brush-off, a mass vote for the DUP in defence of sectarian privilege and a Conservative/DUP pact. Any hope they had of any support from Irish capitalism evaporated in days, with then sitting Minister Charlie Flanagan, supported by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, insisting that we could rely on the British to be impartial, that the Good Friday Agreement was an sanctified international treaty and that, in any case, they, the representatives of Irish capital, stood ready to step in as guarantors at the least sign of any backsliding.

DUP triumph

After a period of confusion the Democratic Unionist party have triumphed locally. The overpowering smell of corruption arising from the ongoing “cash for ash” scandal, costing £500 million and directly overseen by Arlene Foster, has not affected the outcome. Unionist groups such as Alliance looking for compromise with nationalists have been smashed. Open and public collaboration with Loyalist paramilitaries, even as one man was murdered in a loyalist feud, went unremarked. The DUP has emerged with 10 Westminster seats and close to 300,000 votes, having stood on a platform of “No surrender” and “defence of the Union.”  The campaign was overwhelmingly successful, wiping out the other unionist parties to establish the DUP as the leaders of a unionist monolith. The icing on the cake was the weakness of the Conservatives and the DUP role as queen-makers at Westminster.

The election also saw nationalist voters turn away from the decaying Social Democratic and Labour Party to increase their vote for Sinn Fein and award them 7 (abstentionist) seats at Westminster.

Yet the two votes do not cancel out. The DUP have won a vote for forthright defence of sectarian privilege. Their manifesto promises that the continuation of the Stormont assembly must meet a test of securing the union or they will embrace direct rule.  Sinn Fein, after years of decline in their vote, saw a massive uptick when they collapsed the executive. That uptick continued into the Westminster election, but their tone was much quieter and firm commitments missing, leaving the way open for post election negotiation. The DUP vote means that Sinn Fein must yet again choose between being the party of government and the party of protest. The pressure on the organisation will be all the greater as the DUP will claim that the Westminster deal will bring endless economic benefit. Adams has already remarked that extra funds should be distributed by the Executive – a difficult feat if there is no Executive! The pressure is all the greater as a position paper from the British set as a foundation for new talks makes it abundantly clear that the British will not stand over previous agreements, will abandon legacy requirements and will only reopen the Irish language on the DUP’s terms.

Onward to a united Ireland?

Gerry Adams response was: 

"We want into the institutions, because that is what the people desire, that is what the people voted for....but also because we think, strategically, that is the way to a united Ireland. The way forward is not to be in a vacuum, to have stagnation, the way forward is to have that forum working on the basis on which it should have been established."

Later he said that he was willing to meet the DUP half way and that the test of a new agreement would be that it was inside the terms of the Good Friday agreement, a sharp lowering of the bar from the demand that previous commitments be honoured.

What were the main demands Sinn Fein made on collapsing the executive? The demand that Arlene Foster step aside while there is an enquiry into the £500 million cash for ash scandal will have to be quietly forgotten. The demands for resolution of historic cases will have to be diverted yet again into harmless talking shops. The DUP refuse to accept that the brutal history of murder by state forces should ever be acknowledged, let alone investigated or apologised for and the Conservative party in Britain is moving firmly towards state impunity for their military. The one issue on which the DUP have indicated that they will soften their position is around an Irish Language Act and the former republicans, if an assembly is to be restored, will have to hail this as triumph despite the fact that it will be the absolute minimum needed to get the executive up and running and be surrounded by humiliating conditions requiring a bowing the of the knee to ”Orange culture.” 

At the time of writing negotiations have not concluded, but the only choices open to Sinn Fein are to be in a Stormont executive or to be campaigning for inclusion. They may conclude that it is better to wait until the chaos at Westminster dies down, but they have no alternative to Stormont. After all, the history of the institution up until the present has been one of sectarian triumphalism and corruption with Sinn Fein capitulating to unionism and grabbing their share of the spoils. Anyone who believes that the party can U-turn and fight the colonial and sectarian setup in the North, is living in dreamland and ignoring the many links connecting Sinn Fein to the interests of Irish capital.

A chaotic future

The future is chaotic. The DUP want to resurrect the executive to preserve the union with Britain, while Adams claims it is the road to a united Ireland. Neither party has a sustainable strategy. The DUP see powersharing as temporary and yearn for the old Stormont regime of the 50’s, ignoring the fact that the nationalist population is now almost equal to them in size. Sinn Fein aims to be in government in both parts of Ireland, imagining that the British will be more conciliatory at that point. Rather than adding stability, the DUP role in holding up a Conservative government will throw a spotlight on them and on their close links the loyal orders and the paramilitaries, attention they would like to avoid. Both groups are incoherent on Brexit, Sinn Fein wave their aspiration to a united Ireland. The DUP welcome a political separation that reinforces partition and reject a economic separation that will beggar their farming base.

If another settlement is put together we will be told that stability has arrived. Some years ago Gregory Campbell, from the far right of the DUP, launched a bigoted parody of the Irish language. When criticised he doubled down, ridiculing the language again at the DUP conference. A video of the audience showed uneasiness among some of the members. They understood that they had the advantage and thought it foolish to rub their opponent’s nose in it. Yet rubbing their opponent’s nose in it is a central element of loyalism. One of the first issues brought forwarded from the party’s base was that a deal with the Conservatives would allow the Orange Order to push through the nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown. This reflexive bigotry will continue to eat away at Sinn Fein and its support base. Temporary stability will be bought with further chaos ahead.

All of the institutions associated with the Good Friday Agreement live on the edge of collapse, yet that is against a background where there continues to be widespread public support for the concepts on which it is based. Equality of the two traditions is seen as a realistic way of evolving towards a better society rather than as a justification for sectarianism. Bigotry is seen as expression of culture. All of the political and civic forces reinforce this and there is no substantial opposition. The trade union movement has accepted eye-watering austerity on the grounds that workers should sacrifice themselves to save the political settlement.  Local socialists, joined at the hip to the union bureaucracy, give unconditional support to the return of the executive and argue that it can be used to deliver reforms for the workers.

Even the young nationalist voters that forced Sinn Fein out of the executive believe that the Assembly can be got to work and can deliver reforms. The new dispensation arising from the Westminster election will swiftly disabuse them. 

However the mini revolt against Stormont did happen.  For a brief period the mask slipped and the burning anger within sections of the working class was exposed. A similar desperation was shown by Bus Eireann workers in Dublin and by those facing the uncontrolled housing crisis in the South. The strongest signs of revolt are shown in Britain itself, with the gains of Jeremy Corbyn and the naked face of class warfare exposed by the massacre at Grenfell Tower.


At the moment Capitalist power is everywhere, but it is represented by a frantic scrabble for stability as the system jerks from crisis to crisis and capitalism itself begins to fail. Out of the crisis we look for the intervention of the working class - a class for itself, acting in its own interest and sweeping aside the oppressors who torment it.