UK’s Governing Deal Comes at a High Price
BIRMINGHAM, England—In the end, the kingmakers of the U.K. government came at a price: 1 billion pounds.
After two weeks of wrangling, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) agreed to prop up the minority Conservative government to ensure the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, in a deal announced June 26.
However, the true cost of the deal struck with the DUP, a party of Northern Ireland, may be much more than a financial one. The deal could jeopardize the 20-year-old peace agreement in Northern Ireland that ended decades of sectarian violence, say former statesmen who worked on the 1998 peace negotiations.
After the election left the Conservative Party shy of a working majority in lawmaking chambers, the party needed the DUP’s 10 votes to pass their agenda—predominantly a clutch of laws to enact Brexit. In return for DUP votes, the Tories have made various concessions, including earmarking 1 billion pounds ($1.29 billion) in extra funding for the Northern Ireland region. The agreement is not a formal coalition.
But the deal comes with controversial baggage. Northern Ireland is one of the four “countries” that make up the sovereign nation of the United Kingdom. Political parties with regional agendas, such as the DUP, can have representatives in both the central U.K. legislature in London and the regional one in Belfast. The complicated politics of Northern Ireland could therefore impact the central Conservative government through the deal with the DUP.
Northern Ireland was ravaged by sectarian violence between 1968 and 1998, a period known as the “troubles,” in which some 3,600 were killed.
The Irish Republican Army was a paramilitary group of “republicans” who used terrorism to try to force Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland. In response, paramilitary groups were formed by “unionists,” who wanted to remain part of the U.K.
After 30 years of violence, the political wings of both sides—with links to the paramilitaries—reached a peace agreement in 1998.
The DUP is the biggest of the two unionist parties in Northern Ireland. With the government at the mercy of DUP kingmakers, the peace process could be jeopardized, said former Prime Minister John Major, who helped broker the peace deal.
“A fundamental part of that peace process is that the U.K. government needs to be impartial between all the competing interests in Northern Ireland,” he told the BBC in a June 13 interview.
“The danger is that however much any government tries, they will not be seen to be impartial if they are locked into a parliamentary deal, at Westminster, with one of the Northern Ireland parties.”
He said that the peace process was “fragile.”
Northern Ireland makes most of its laws from its parliament in Belfast, the Northern Ireland Assembly, but still has seats in the overarching U.K. Parliament in Westminster.
However, the assembly was suspended in January, after a political scandal led to an impasse between the unionist and republican factions. The assembly has been suspended several times in the past.
The DUP deal with the Conservatives came just days before a June 29 deadline for the Northern Ireland parties to patch together an executive. In the event of a long-term breakdown of the regional government, caretaking powers can be passed to the U.K. government, heightening concerns over the central government’s neutrality.
“The last thing anybody wishes to see is one or other of the communities so aggrieved that the hard men, who are still there lurking in the corners of the community, decide that they wish to return to some form of violence,” said Major.
Major’s concerns are shared by Lord Peter Hain, former secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
Hain told LBC Radio on June 11: “Inevitably, if Theresa May is dependent on her very survival as prime minister, and the survival of her government, on DUP votes, then when it comes to getting the Stormont government [of Northern Ireland] back up and running … If she’s not seen … as a neutral, nonpartisan interlocutor, negotiator, in the process, I can’t see how Stormont can be resurrected.”
Senior politicians of both major parties have described the DUP deal as “toxic” and likely to stir up resentment from voters in other parts of the country.
The U.K. doesn’t divvy out regional powers or cash using a clear federal system. Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland each have different powers given to their own respective lawmakers.
England, on the other hand, has no separate parliament and its national laws are decided directly by the U.K. Parliament, which includes representatives from Scotland and Wales—a lopsided arrangement that leads to periodic calls for an English Parliament.
Central government funding for Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland isn’t divided per capita, but by using a system called the Barnett formula, which leads to considerably different spending across different parts of the U.K.
Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in a statement that the DUP deal violated the principles of devolved government and the Barnett formula.
“Scotland will be missing out on an estimated 2.9 billion pounds funding for our public services—that is the price to Scottish taxpayers for the Tories to stay in power.”
The opposition Labour Party dubbed the 1 billion-pound agreement as a “bung” (slang for bribe) paid to hold onto power, mocking the Tories for turning out the government’s pockets so readily when they have preached austerity for years.
But for staunch supporters of leaving the EU, the 1 billion-pound agreement is just the cost of doing business—small beer compared with the 60 billion to 100 billion euros that the EU may extract from the U.K. as part of a Brexit deal.