Real Media: Northern Ireland, Conservatives & Dark Money (2/2)
Open Democracy editor Adam Ramsay discusses who the Democratic Unionist Party is and what Theresa May’s potential deal will mean for the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Irish politics and the future (Part 2)
ADAM RAMSAY: I’m Adam Ramsay and I’m editor of openDemocracyUK.
The Democratic Unionist Party is the more radical, as in more extreme, of the two unionist parties in Northern Ireland. Just to get the language right, because I know people in Britain often forget this, “unionist” means union with the UK. Traditionally “nationalist” or “Republican” means they want to be part of Ireland. These are a Protestant party. They are … And of the two parties, the other one is called the Ulster Unionist Party, which traditionally sat with the Conservative Party and in this election was totally wiped out and lost its two MPs.
DUP was originally a fringe party in Northern Ireland, which over the last decade or two has grown up to be the main party of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. They can only be described as a hard right party. They are a party that had one MP recently was caught up in a scandal where a member of the public said that “ethnics” needed to be sent home and the MP said, “Yes, you’re quite right.” Jeffrey Donaldson, their longest standing MP … Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says on his website that he started politics as Enoch Powell’s campaign manager. For those who aren’t familiar, Enoch Powell was originally considered to be MP, gave his “Rivers of Blood” of speech, he turned towards fascism and then had to go to stand in Northern Ireland because the Conservative Party weren’t going to put up with that. Jeffrey Donaldson is the man who then ran his campaign in Northern Ireland. He says he’s [inaudible 00:01:38] their website to get him elected there. He’s still talking about how great Enoch Powell, a kind of famous fascist in modern Europe.
This is a party which worked very hard to fight a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion and so, as a result, in Northern Ireland you still don’t have abortion rights. It’s a huge problem for women there. They’re fighting against equal marriage rights for LGBT couples and so there’s huge problems for LGBT people there. They’re a party that is rank with bigotry throughout its ranks. People in Northern Ireland can give you endless examples of the sort of hard bigotry of DUP.
Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:02:23]
ADAM RAMSAY: Okay, so we need to go back a bit in history to think about this. Remember that … When I was a kid, and I was born in 1985, there was still a significant conflict between the two communities in Northern Ireland. There’s a complex, complex history of all of it, but both sides had people in them … Most people in Northern Ireland always wanted peace. Both sides had people in them who were killing other people, who were involved in violence. People often forget that. They remember the IRA, but they forget there was also Loyalist terrorist groups, the UDA, the UVF etc. The DUP was absolutely involved in one of those paramilitary groups specifically called Ulster Resistance. Just like Sinn Féin has very close links with the IRA, the DUP has historical links with Ulster Resistance, which, for example, in the ’80s was running huge amounts of armaments, including very heavy weaponry, along with the other harder terrorist groups [inaudible 00:03:17].
That all happens. In 1997, the Irish and British and American governments get together and they get the two sides to agree to a peace deal, which is known as the Good Friday Agreement, which is both ratified by referendum in the North of Ireland and also in the Republic of Ireland and is an international treaty as well. Part of the process there is that the two governments, the British government and the Irish government, have a responsibility to mediate between these two dies. Britain says at this point that it doesn’t have a strategic interest in Northern Ireland remaining in the UK. It’s up to the people of Northern Ireland to decide its constitutional future and that’s how they get peace. We’re not taking sides in this conflict. We’re neutral in this conflict.
Now, 20 years on, if you go to Northern Ireland now, it is still a community that is divided by massive walls. You talk about the wall that Trump wants to build between the USA and Mexico. Bits of Belfast and all the main cities in Northern Ireland literally have massive physical barriers between the Catholic and Protestant communities in order to stop them fighting and killing each other. This isn’t a community at ease with itself. It’s still got serious problems. There has been relative peace for a long time and that’s a very good thing, but it’s still a tense situation. There were riots in Belfast in 2013 or so because Loyalists, who are the kind of more hardcore of the pro-Britain unionists, were upset that maybe the British flag wasn’t going to fly over the Belfast City Hall every day of the week. This is a … People were rioting over a flag.
There’s still very heavy tension there, which partly comes from austerity and people reverting to their communities in a time of austerity. And then you have Brexit, and what Brexit means for Northern Ireland is potential disaster because it means a potentially hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island of Ireland. If you think of what that means for a business that is regularly trying to get a van into take crops and whatever it sells from Dublin or if you think of what it means for people who commute in, because there are lots of people who work, for example, in one of the towns or cities in Northern Ireland, but live in the Republic or vice versa. It’s a small place and there’s endless people crossing the borders and so if this suddenly becomes a frontier of the EU, then there’s a real question about what kind of border you have. This has already created real conflicts in Northern Ireland. Not violent conflict like you had before, but real difficulties and tensions within the community.
And then what happened earlier this year is that the Northern Irish Assembly Government collapsed. Part of the Good Friday Agreement was that the two different halves of the community had to both be involved in the governance of Northern Ireland so you would always have a Northern Irish Assembly Government which is made up of parties from both sides. Because of a major scandal involving the DUP where basically they took about half a billion pounds that was spent on a renewable energy subsidy scheme, although they’re mostly climate change deniers, which subsidized people to have wood chip boilers and lots of people made a lot of money out of these wood chip boilers and there was a lot of allegations about who made that money and who knew about the scheme and people have been accused of corruption. Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, was very involved in her former job as a minister in setting the scheme up. Sinn Féin have said they’re not going to work with Arlene Foster because they think that she’s involved in this totally scandalous scheme.
So you’ve already got all this pressure. The government has collapsed in Northern Ireland. It’s a very worrying situation for everyone who follows Northern Irish politics. And then Theresa May blithely says that she’s willing to do a deal with one side of that community and the other side she’s not going to deal with are not represented in Westminster because Sinn Féin don’t sit in Westminster. So she’s going to do a deal with one side which could mean that we essentially unravel the Good Friday Agreement because if the DUP is involved in government, the government is taking a side in that conflict. In the context that we already have a very worrying situation there, that’s a real problem.
Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:07:44]
ADAM RAMSAY: I think it’s worth thinking about, in a way, the role of a lot of British society in this. For example, on the night of the election, David Dimbleby on TV was talking about how it was obvious that Theresa May would do a deal with the DUP. Now, in the ’90s, John Major … John Major, if you remember, gradually lost his majority through a series of by-elections after the ’92 election, but throughout that process, he refused to do a deal with the DUP because he understood that peace in Northern Ireland was more important to him than remaining Prime Minister. Theresa May was easily facilitated, in a way, by a lot of people who just didn’t understand the difference between the UUP, the Tories’ traditional allies who are much more moderate, people who weren’t involved in violence in the same sorts of ways and so on. But because people didn’t challenge them early on, I think absolutely Theresa May got away with basically putting her political career ahead of peace in Northern Ireland and that’s totally disgraceful.
Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:08:47]
ADAM RAMSAY: I think that there’s two different questions. The first is the influence the DUP will have over the rest of the UK. I expect the answer to that is actually not very much. They’re not that interested in that. They will maybe try and push things like abortion reductions, but I expect they won’t get that through. Obviously that’s a thing that needs to be fought, but I expect they won’t get that through. My worry is more that they’ll get a whole load of stuff to do with Northern Ireland through that people in the rest of the UK won’t understand or care about or notice that’s really damaging.
One thing that’s already been talked about is abolition of a thing called the Parades Commission. The role of parades in Northern Ireland is something that people of our generation in Britain have never really thought about, particularly in England and Scotland because you have [inaudible 00:09:34], there’s more of an understanding of it. But what this means is that … The Parades Commission was set up in order to ensure that, for example, you didn’t get big Orange walks, which is where people get up in their paramilitary uniforms and they go and they bang their drums and they march and it all looks from the outside like its a perfectly nice day out, but what they’re doing is they’re going through Catholic communities and singing provocative songs, often songs that are effectively about killing Catholics and so on, and they’re trying to seek conflict. And, you know, this cuts both ways to an extent about who gets to march where and so on, but the reason they want to ban the Parades Commission is the Parades Commission has stopped them doing things. It was basically set up in order to facilitate the peace process and stop them doing things which really are provocative and likely to cause violence in Northern Ireland.
It’s an incredibly dangerous thing to do, but can you imagine Theresa May going, “No one in Britain is going to notice or care if we let them abolish the Parades Commission so let’s just let them have it.” Of course you can imagine them doing that. So my real worry is that the whole set of issues that in Northern Ireland are very important and vital to people there and absolutely by the power dynamic between the two different communities in Northern Ireland, which people outside Northern Ireland understand so little that the Tories will think it politically very easy for them to concede on in these negotiations.
Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:10:59]
ADAM RAMSAY: Well, Theresa May is an astonishingly weak position. I was always convinced she would never be stupid enough to call a snap election because it was obviously going to be a massive risk to do so, and she did so. She has lost her majority in that process. She is clinging on to her personal career. She’s been widely blamed within the Tories for doing so badly. Now, in a way, I think that’s a mistake. Theresa May is awful, but it’s also because Jeremy Corbyn did very well in this election and the Labour Party. All the activists who were going around knocking on doors, the Tories never understood what was going to come and hit them, did very well in this election. Theresa May is in a very weak position going into this and she’s fighting to save her political career. Is she going to be willing to throw peace in Northern Ireland under the bus or at least risk it in order to save her career? It looks like yes, she is.
Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:11:57]
ADAM RAMSAY: One of the things that the DUP is said to have demanded is that Nigel Farage is involved in the Brexit negotiations. Now, I think that if there’s one thing that we can learn from the election, it’s that UKIP are now irrelevant in British politics and, actually, even a lot of people who voted for Brexit didn’t think that they had to have Nigel Farage there to make that happen, because they don’t think that he represents their politics in general. Lots of people who I interviewed about Brexit before the referendum that were voting leave, people in this region, Doncaster and places like that, hated Nigel Farage. They didn’t think he was their man. Obviously there’s people who do like him, but most of the country doesn’t. That’s why he can’t get a constituency, because every time he has run anywhere in the country, even the most popular places for him, most people tactically vote for the best placed candidate to beat him because they hate him so much.
The idea that the DUP is going to be able to impose on the Brexit negotiations a man so widely hated in politics and with such radical right views is very worrying. The problem with that is that what the Brexit process will do is cement a whole set of things like our relationships with other countries that will last a very long time. It’s not like one election. It’s more important than that. It’s a long term process that we’re agreeing the direction of now. Once you go in that direction it’s very hard to change it. So that’s probably the most pernicious thing, I think, that the DUP could have a say over for us. If they do get someone, it probably won’t Farage. They’ll withdraw that. That’s a kind of negotiating position. They’ll get someone who we haven’t heard of that will be just as awful into that position, and that’s a real worry. I’m going to be keeping an eye on that very much.
And also there’s a set of issues that you can imagine the Tories kind of giving the DUP because they think people don’t really care about them. For example, if you think about government policy on climate change, the DUP or a lot of their MPs are climate deniers and you can imagine the government just throwing a bit of climate denial into their rhetoric just to keep the DUP on side, for example, and we should worry about that.
Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:14:11]
ADAM RAMSAY: There’s this interesting kind of whole narrative around foreign states’ involvement in Brexit. The story we uncovered indicates potential links with the [inaudible 00:14:30] government, although we don’t know that for sure yet. There’s discussion about Russian state involvement. There’s a question about Farage’s links with meeting the Russian ambassador and so on. I think that, on the one hand, we’ve got to be cautious, but lots of people voted for Brexit not because Farage told them to, but because they were really angry with the establishment. There’s a tendency of the establishment to say, “Oh, this wasn’t … People didn’t mean to do this. It was all a big mistake. Actually, it was just the Russians. It wasn’t us.”
The main reason Brexit happened is people do hate the establishment and people are right to hate the establishment. There’s very good reason for it. I voted remain. I very passionately support staying in the EU, but people voted leave because they hate the establishment, primarily, and they wanted to give the establishment a massive kicking and the establishment told them very clearly how to kick them, which was vote leave, so they did. But at the same time, we should absolutely be asking questions about where people like Nigel Farage and various of the leave campaigns got all their money from. Who is it? In whose interest was it that this happened? Who’s benefiting from it? The fact that Farage is now listed as a person of interest by the FBI is obviously absolutely vital and he should be held to account for that.