From time to time, in my four-and-a-half years covering Northern Ireland for this site, I’ve let slip quite how fond I am of the place.
When I was studying in Dublin I was a frequent visitor to Belfast, and I’ve made good friends and happy memories in that city and across the province.
As a unionist the links between Ireland and Britain are dear to my heart but, until recently, I’ve been rather resigned to the fact that Ulster, boxed away behind the dire combination of very extensive devolution and an entirely separate party system, does not feature much at all in mainland thinking.
That’s why, despite my own social liberalism, I remain so optimistic about the prospect of the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionists, Northern Ireland’s biggest party, collaborating in a relatively high-profile way in running this country – and why I’ve been so appalled by the coverage this prospect has received.
First, a quick note: the two parties have actually been building up closer relations since the Brexit vote. As the DUP backed Brexit the usual disown-and-demand model of devolved politics has given way to a quite consistent partnership in Parliament.
This was all behind the scenes, however, which meant that it still didn’t do much to raise the profile of Northern Ireland in British discourse. The prospect of the DUP propping up a minority Conservative administration has certainly changed that. Unfortunately, it has highlighted nothing so much as the complete dearth of understanding of Northern Irish issues on the mainland.
There are two broad schools of problematic criticism of the Conservative/DUP arrangement: that rooted in ignorance, and that which amounts to hysteria at best and outright deception at worst from people who should know better.
In the former camp you’ll find most coverage of the party’s social conservatism. It’s a legitimate target for criticism, but too many ignore (or simply aren’t aware) that such attitudes are shared in large part by the province’s other parties – including the SDLP, who took the Labour whip until they were wiped out last week – and are reflective of a substantial body of Ulster opinion.
You may believe that such freedoms should be available to all British citizens regardless of variance in local opinion. That’s certainly my view, but in which case focus your criticism on whoever it was that decided to devolve control over liberties issues.
Such attacks often also claim that LGBT rights on the mainland may be in jeopardy, despite the fact that such social issues feature not once in the DUP’s quite extensive plans for such negotiations as these (which, typically and problematically, relatively few over here will have read).
More insidious than this have been some of the interventions by politicians of the Good Friday Agreement generation, particularly John Major and Jonathan Powell, who was one of the senior people on Northern Irish issues in Tony Blair’s government.
The former Prime Minister has made some quite reasonable points – such as the fact that big payments to Ulster may cause resentment in other parts of the United Kingdom – but he has also claimed that a Tory-DUP arrangements may see a return to violence in the province. The so-called “ghosts of Labour past” are backing him up.
That’s not only straightforward nonsense (aside from pre-existing dissident activity there is no suggestion of a major IRA re-armament) but a slur on a country which has come a very long way since Major’s time but still struggles with a public image dominated by the Troubles.
Such a line finds ready echoes because the easiest way for somebody to look like they know what they’re talking about when it comes to Northern Ireland (without doing the research) is to furrow their brow and say how concerned they are about the “peace process”, whatever they think that is.
But it’s especially damaging coming from someone like Sir John, who will likely be taken seriously by people considering investing in the province. Careless talk could cost jobs.
Less insulting, but just as potentially damaging, is the idea that the Good Friday Agreement effectively prohibits Northern Irish parties from taking part in, or otherwise supporting, a British Government. This is basically Sinn Fein’s position, and it’s not hard to see why, but it should be apparent that any arrangement which locked Northern Irish politicians out of national life would be unfit for purpose.
Does the DUP hold problematic positions? Yes it does. Does having them so involved in UK-level government pose new challenges to the constitutional settlement? Again, yes. But these problems are not insurmountable – and will only ever be surmounted if we drop the shrieking and snobbery and deign to engage with the elected representatives of one of the Home Nations.
The best single corrective we can all make is to pay more attention to Northern Irish voices (and not just those being commissioned by mainland editors) – particularly unionists, who will help to balance the strongly negative balance of coverage.
Following the likes of Mick Fealty (see his excellent series of DUP myth-busting posts), Sam McBride, Newton Emerson, and Ben Lowry, and reading threads like this one from a Northern Irish BBC producer, will do more to enhance your understanding of the issues and personalities running through Ulster politics than any volume of London copy.
(Obviously don’t make such a habit of them that you no longer need this column to keep abreast of devolved issues!)
Remember too that influence cuts both ways: the DUP will have seen how the ferocious backlash caused by their social conservatism is limiting their leverage in London. The prospect of a stronger hand at Westminster may help to empower the more socially progressive wing of the party’s next generation – and illustrate the folly of playing along with the short-term, ‘little Ulster’ politics which has left them so cut off from British opinion.
Building relationships with Ulster legislators is much more likely to pull Northern Ireland towards British norms than vice-versa. Perhaps that’s why Jeffrey Dudgeon, one of the province’s pre-eminent gay rights campaigners, sees “no problem” with a Conservative-DUP pact.
Ultimately, though, this is about more than just the Democratic Unionist Party: it’s about Northern Ireland and how we treat it.
For all its faults, the province has come a very long way since the 1990s and is a lovely and under-appreciated corner of our country. It’s disgraceful that those posing as voices of reason and experience on this subject (and for too many Ulster is more an issue than a place) are being allowed by an under-informed London media to misrepresent it as an unstable tinderbox whose representatives have no proper role in governing the United Kingdom of which they remain, by choice, a part.
There’s much to admire about Major, and he’s certainly an under-appreciated Prime Minister whose unionist and peace-making credentials are not in doubt. That only makes his talking up the prospect of a return to violence in Northern Ireland the more disgraceful. He ought to reflect, and apologise.