In the first of a two-part series, columnist Mick Clocherty looks beyond the headlines to try and understand Northern Ireland and the DUP
IF Scotland is the British establishment’s unhappy spouse, then Northern Ireland is a maligned elderly relative: a burden they’ll put up with until it’s dead.
One of the biggest crimes in the whole twisted saga of this year’s General Election is that we wouldn’t even be looking at politics in Northern Ireland were it not for the deal between Theresa May and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
It strikes me that the new progressive left in Scotland has a strange relationship with Irish politics, and until recent events had it filed it under either “tribalism” or “don’t care”. It’s seen as a relic; partisanship reserved for the feral buckfast-swilling masses of housing schemes they’ve never been to, as nuanced as an old firm derby.
“What we have seen in Scotland is more people voting along constitutional lines than in the past, and some of the more sectarian side of Northern Irish politics raising its head this side of the Irish Sea.” Councillor Ruairi Kelly
I get the sense there’s been a collective queasy feeling among the millennial generation after a mass googling of “DUP”; reacting like they’ve just discovered an aggressive new form of cancer. But they’re not new. They’ve been just across the water this whole time, running the affairs of people with slightly different accents than our own, and making life that little bit harder for women, the LGBTQ community, ethnic minorities, refugees, roman catholics – you name it.
It’s worth noting that while the idea of these extremist politicians having a say in what happens in Glasgow, Dundee or Edinburgh appals us, we’re usually pretty quiet when it comes to them running the day-to-day affairs of people in Belfast, Derry or Bangor.
With this in mind, it’s hugely important that we hear from people who have first hand experience of the DUP in government, and who are familiar with the political landscape of the mythical war-torn kingdom of Ulster (or we run the risk of sensationalising and creating fallacies).
My first port of call was councillor Ruairi Kelly of the SNP, one of the newly elected councillors in Glasgow, who is originally from Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. I asked him, first of all, what he saw as the major implications of the deal for Scotland.
“It won’t make much of a difference to Scotland in any tangible way,” Councillor Kelly told me. “Our voice will still be ignored by a rightwing government in Westminster.
“I don’t see it affecting the respect, or lack thereof, shown to the rest of the UK and devolved parliaments, as the only reason they are dealing with the DUP in the first place is out of sheer desperation to cling to power.
“We have seen throughout the whole campaign that the Tory leadership don’t even respect the electorate enough to give them proper debates or to engage with them in any meaningful way. The prime minister wouldn’t even meet the families of the Grenfell Tower tragedy – if that doesn’t show disrespect for the people I don’t know what does.
“What we have seen in Scotland is more people voting along constitutional lines than in the past, and some of the more sectarian side of Northern Irish politics raising its head this side of the Irish Sea.
“Certain parties have stoked that and courted the votes that it can rouse, and I, speaking from experience, would urge against anyone encouraging those sort of divisions for political gain.”
As well as the ramifications of the deal for Scotland, I asked Kelly for his opinion on what the deal realistically means for Northern Ireland.
“Certain parties have stoked that and courted the votes that it can rouse, and I, speaking from experience, would urge against anyone encouraging those sort of divisions for political gain.” Councillor Ruairi Kelly
“While I disagree with pretty much everything the DUP stands for, I don’t see this being the worst thing for Northern Ireland,” he said. “With the DUP holding the balance of power they have negotiated concessions and extra funding for Northern Ireland which along with health, education and infrastructure, will help pay for the huge black hole they created with the RHI scandal.
“They will have a vested interest in trying to prove that the union works to try and fend off the spectre of a border poll that looms over the Brexit horizon; so will be doing all they can to make the deal work for Northern Ireland.”
Talking about what he perceived to be a bigger concern for peace in Northern Ireland, Councillor Kelly added: “The peace process is intrinsically linked to the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland; but if the DUP can successfully ensure that there is no hard border in Ireland it will actually be doing a lot to save the peace process.
“Brexit is the real threat to peace in Northern Ireland, one that has not been given serious consideration, but then it would not be uncommon for Northern Ireland not to be given a second thought until it does become a problem – much like the DUP were never an issue for the British media until they might have a say in how their country was run.”
As well as speaking with Kelly, I caught up with Belfast-based LGBTQ campaigner Adrianne Elson, who I previously interviewed about her wish to join the women’s lodge of the Orange Order as a transwoman.
“I think there’s a misconception in Britain that people in Northern Ireland, or Ulster protestants anyway, are inherently homophobic and transphobic.” Adrianne Elson
When asked if she considered the DUP to be a genuine threat to the gains made in equality, Elson told me: “I genuinely don’t think the 10 MPs, with the precedent of equal marriage already set in Great Britain, would be very wise to consider rolling back LGBT rights in mainland UK. I just can’t see it, I really can’t.
“In terms of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, nothing gained will be lost. The public consciousness over LGBT issues has moved on leaps and bounds, even in the last five years, particularly with transgender rights. Things have moved very quickly.
“Any politician, even from an electoral point of view, who seriously tried to rein back on that would be seriously ill-judged.”
When asked about whether the bulk of the DUP’s voters share their more fire and brimstone principles, Elson explained: “I think there’s a misconception in Britain that people in Northern Ireland, or Ulster protestants anyway, are inherently homophobic and transphobic.
“I don’t think Belfast is any more or less homophobic than any UK city – it’s just we’ve been thrust into this unfortunate position whereby we feel, when we’re backed into our orange and green camps, that we’ve got to vote for these particular types of political party.
“I’ve spoken to so many unionists who’ve said they voted DUP and held their nose, because they felt they had to.
“I’ve spoken to so many unionists who’ve said they voted DUP and held their nose, because they felt they had to. They don’t agree with their stance on LGBT issues, but they just felt they had to do it.” Adrianne Elson
“They don’t agree with their stance on LGBT issues, but they just felt they had to do it. I think there’s probably thousands of people that fall into that camp.”
It seems part of the problem with our attitude to Northern Ireland is that we either ignore it completely, or only hear those who shout the loudest. We miss the quiet people, and there are a lot more of them.
There’s a complex political situation going on in Ulster, and distilling it down to cartoonish extremes will help the DUP more than it will hinder it.
That’s not to say this partnership is no cause for concern. The DUP is a fundamentalist Christian group which is sectarian, Islamophobic, homophobic and transphobic. The DUP views Jurassic Park as an affront to God (which actually, I’ll give it partial credit for, because Jurassic Park 2 was an affront to God).
More importantly, it’s propping up a government that’s just as nasty and rightwing as it is: a government wilfully destroying the welfare state and refusing to be held accountable when working class people die as a direct result of its policies.
We’ve got to continue to resist this government, but we have to breathe, and do so with a degree of context and understanding.
In part two, I’ll be speaking with Martina Anderson, MEP for Sinn Féin, about the wider implications of the deal for Brexit, and the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Picture courtesy of NICVA
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