The way the money is actually being spent could create greater rift in an already divided community in Northern Ireland
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. After narrowly winning the UK elections on June 8th, the Conservative Party has been struggling to form a government. Finally Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister has secured a majority in Parliament with the 10 MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. The deal with the DUP will mean that the Northern Irish MPs will support the Prime Minister’s proposed budget and legislation in exchange for one billion pounds sterling for infrastructure spending in Northern Ireland. The reaction against the deal has come from across the political spectrum with many former and current senior politicians claiming this deal may violate the Good Friday Agreement that secured the end to the armed conflict in Northern Ireland. Joining us today to discuss the implications of the deal with the DUP is Adam Ramsay. Adam is a UK editor of Open Democracy. He’s based in Edinburgh and has written extensively about Scottish, Northern Irish and UK politics. Adam, good to have you with us again. ADAM RAMSAY: Thank you for having me. SHARMINI PERIES: Okay Adam. Let’s begin with explaining what’s in the deal. What is in it for the Theresa May government and the Conservatives and what is in it for the DUP in Northern Ireland? ADAM RAMSAY: For Theresa May, she gets 10 more votes for what’s called votes of confidence and votes of supply, budget. It’s known as a confidence and supply deal. What that means is she can’t push through every piece of legislation she might like but she will, when it comes down to it on votes of, you know, paramount importance, i.e. ones that could bring down the government, she’ll have the MPs there to line up behind her assuming her own Conservatives don’t rebel. What the Democratic Unionist Party got in exchange for this was a huge amount of money, a billion pounds, for a relatively small part of the UK. I think it’s important to say two things about that. The first is that, more money for Northern Ireland is in itself a good thing. Austerity has been a failure in Britain. Northern Ireland is one of the poorest parts of northern Europe and investing more money in Northern Ireland is in itself good. Lots of people in the rest of Britain, including my friends on the left, I think have been very wrong to condemn money going somewhere that it’s needed. On the other hand, we need to look very carefully at two things. Firstly the issue that you raised about how this potentially violates the Good Friday Agreement. It is a massive risk to the peace process in Northern Ireland, and also look at the detail of how the money is actually being spent because it’s worth remembering that Northern Ireland is still as it always has been, an astonishingly divided community. SHARMINI PERIES: All right. So let’s unpack this one at a time. How does it compromise the Good Friday Agreement? ADAM RAMSAY: Okay, so the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1997 and has kind of, you know, four main partners to it. It’s got the UK government, the Irish government, the EU and America. It builds [inaudible 00:03:17]. Was absolutely key to the process. It requires that the British government and the Irish government and the Americans are neutral in the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. Remember the Catholic community on the whole is seen as wanting to, in the long term, join with the Republic of Ireland and become part of the Republic of Ireland and the Protestant community, known as the Unionist or the Loyalist community wants to remain part of the UK and it was that context, you had a very long running civil war in Northern Ireland. Which ended in 1997, and it requires the British Government treaty, the Good Friday Agreement Treaty, requires the British government to be neutral within that. So if you give one side, the DUP represent the Unionists, the Protestant side of that deal, particular power in the British government, that’d obviously, that British government is no longer in any way neutral. In fact, the Tories have openly said now that they are not neutral in the question of this issue, which is in itself a worry. The other huge problem, and it’s important not to forget this, is that already the process of Brexit and in fact a whole set of other things happening in Northern Ireland, were jeopardizing this deal as it stood. So already in a context where leaving the EU might leave a hard border between the North of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for the first time really ever, because we’ve never had a situation before where one’s in the EU and the other’s out of the EU. Ireland joined the EU at the same time as the UK. So we see already the risk of a hard border between them already. The institutions of the EU, to keep part of the Good Friday Agreement, you know, [inaudible 00:04:50] Northern Ireland leaving those, despite the fact that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and then you add in this element and you have a real risk, a real problem. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, now so then we have Michael Fallon, who is the Secretary of Defense, defending the deal as necessary for the prosperity of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. What is wrong with that in terms of the Northern Irish getting some extra money for critical public investment and infrastructure support? ADAM RAMSAY: Well in itself there’s nothing wrong with it, but of course the kind of problem with the analysis of the Tories is that lots of parts of the UK need more investment. The government has been forcing through austerity for seven years now, that’s had brutal impact absolutely on Northern Ireland, but also on other very poor parts of the UK, such as Northeastern England, the West of Wales, the Welsh Valleys and lots of other places too. So I think people who’ve been criticizing the deal for saying that Northern Ireland shouldn’t get money are wrong, but of course, it’s not just Northern Ireland needs money, and the Tories at the same is giving this money to Northern Ireland, have been not giving the same money to other places that need it. But then the other problem is that you gotta look very carefully at where the money is going in particular. Because Northern Ireland, geographically, is very divided. There’s still literally, there’s walls in between the Catholic communities and the Protestant communities. Like the wall that Trump has threatened to build on the border of Mexico. Northern Ireland is divided by these, what they call ‘police walls’, but basically to stop people killing each other. And so the question is which communities is this money going into? The kind of initial analysis, which shows where the investment is going, shows that it’s largely going, for example, east of the river Bann, which is mostly where majority Protestant communities live, rather than west of the river Bann, where majority Catholic communities tend to live. I expect you’ll see more and more analysis showing that the money’s been steered by the DUP towards what they’d see as their communities, which is a huge problem. Part of the context, this is absolutely vital and a bit complicated, is that one of the things the Good Friday Agreement did was set up a national government for Northern Ireland which required both communities, Catholic and Protestant, to have representation in the government of Northern Ireland, which would make sure that money was roughly doled out fairly between the two sides. But that government collapsed earlier this year in the context of a massive corruption scandal with the DUP and so then Sinn Féin, the biggest Catholic party, refusing to go into government with the DUP which means that there isn’t currently a Northern Irish government. So all of this infrastructure spending wasn’t going through the normal process in making sure it’s allocated fairly. It’s just be chosen basically by the DUP in a list of demands to the Conservative Party and that means that one half of the population in Northern Ireland, the Protestant Unionist part, getting to decide where this amount of money goes, rather than the normal process which is about making sure that both halves of the community are fairly represented. SHARMINI PERIES: So then, Adam, despite recent claims by the press that Theresa May had decided to end austerity in the UK and they are also criticizing her for flipping and flopping on the issue, but Michael Fallon has come out and of course claimed that austerity is not over, so what kind of reaction is there for what’s going on in terms of yes, austerity for UK and maybe more lenient policies in terms of this money being handed over to Northern Ireland, what is the reaction to all of this? ADAM RAMSAY: We’ll have to wait and see what it says in the next UK budget, which happens once a year, and that won’t be for a while, but the reaction from a lot of people is … so, for example, the Labor Party along with other opposition parties, proposed an amendment what’s called The Queen’s Speech, where the government laid out it’s program where they said that there should be a raise in the wages of public sector workers. Had a pay freeze a very long time, so people like firefighters and nurses and so on. And the Conservatives voted that down and in fact, throughout the election campaign we had recently, they were very clear, they kept using this line, “There’s no magic money tree.” In other words, “We can’t just find funds to pay public sector workers the money they deserve.” Public sector workers in the UK have had a pay freeze, which in real terms means a big pay cut for a long time now and of course, refusing to raise tax on the wealthy, et cetera, in order to raise that money, and so there’s a lot of anger at the sense that the Tories gave all this money to Northern Ireland in order to secure the majority but then haven’t been willing to pay public sector workers more. Now, my argument would be that austerity was always a myth and they can afford both to give proper infrastructure money to Northern Ireland, because failure to invest in infrastructure always makes a country poorer, and also afford to pay public sector workers a decent wage. The UK, of course, is one of the most unequal countries in the world. We could easily tax the wealthy more and also, if you don’t invest properly in public services, that only makes your country poorer in the long run. Failure to invest health education is what makes a country poor. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Adam. We’ll be watching this deal as it goes through and hope to have you back for more comment. Thank you for that update. ADAM RAMSAY: Nice chat, thank you. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.