Northern Ireland at Westminster: confidence, supply and the principle of consent

Northern Ireland’s MPs rarely play a big role in Commons arithmetic. With only 18 out of 650 seats, they’re rarely decisive in the United Kingdom’s elections. Furthermore, none of the UK-wide parties win seats there.

So we’re not very used to Northern Ireland’s politicians having much say in the government of the UK. The current maths shocked us all. And as a Labour member, I clearly hold no brief for a Conservative confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. But the way the legitimacy, as opposed to the wisdom and policy content, of such a deal has been attacked has often been problematic at best. And at worst it’s ignored Northern Ireland’s right to a say in the UK altogether.

Who are the DUP anyway?

Much commentary on the DUP has been rooted in an ignorance of their nature. DUP politicians are indeed socially conservative in a way those in Great Britain rarely are these days. Greater scrutiny of that conservatism would be thoroughly justified. They show no sign of trying to export those norms to Great Britain — they will probably mainly want more money for Northern Ireland. But it would be a thoroughly good thing if we heard more about the impact of DUP attitudes on women and LGBT people in Northern Ireland. It is striking that Westminster never tried to equalise its abortion laws with Great Britain’s through all the years of direct rule. (We should also note this isn’t just the DUP’s prerogative in Northern Ireland. Our own sister party, the SDLP, is just as opposed.)

There are valid points to make about the history of several DUP politicians. The rhetoric and behaviour of the late Ian Paisley deserved excoriation — though in the end he formed a joint Executive, which we should remember too. It’s fair to say that it did at times display a worrying level of equivocation over loyalist terrorism. Recently, the RHI scandal and Arlene Foster’s stubbornness speak ill of DUP attitudes to good governance.

But conflating the DUP’s periodic failure to keep its nose clean with the role of the IRA mistakes the case. Conflating deeply conservative religiosity with having been inextricably bound up with terrorism won’t get you very far in understanding Northern Ireland. And DUP flirtations with Ulster Resistance were very different from the IRA’s responsibility for nearly half of deaths during the Troubles and its inherent connection with Sinn Féin. I’m not saying there aren’t a great many charges to lay at the DUP’s door over many years. But I am saying it’s a different set of arguments. The DUP is not the PUP.

Confidence, supply and the peace process

It is wholly fair to worry about the impact on the impartiality of the UK Government, perceived or actual, in the Northern Ireland peace process. The key part of the Good Friday Agreement cited here reads as follows:

The two Governments:

… affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions …

It doesn’t constrain government formation in either the United Kingdom or a united Ireland. (Imagine the reaction were a united Ireland banned from giving Sinn Féin a role in government in Dublin and you’ll see why not.)

But it would be wholly unacceptable for the UK Government to be parti pris on either side in the peace process. A full coalition, with collective responsibility across government policy including the Northern Ireland Office, currently would make the UK Government’s position impossible in practice. But that’s not on the cards. A full coalition would serve neither the DUP’s interest nor the Conservatives’. The DUP wouldn’t want that level of responsibility; the Conservatives will have to reach beyond the DUP to make this House of Commons function anyway.

The main issue, from a Tory point of view, is guaranteed support for its Budgets — supply. And with a confidence and supply deal, there is no need for matters relating to the NIO to be included. It is completely fair to be worried about the quality of those assurances and to scrutinise the substance of a confidence and supply deal. Obviously, there would need to be assurances about impartiality, which the Irish Government states it has been given. And as the SDLP’s leader has very sensibly said, “We have to judge it on its merits and see what the deal looks like.”

A confidence and supply deal may well be a bad idea. It may very well be politically unwise. But it’s not constitutionally or politically illegitimate in and of itself, any more than it was when Labour toyed with similar deals in 2010.

The principle of consent

Above all, too many in Great Britain have seemed hostile to the very notion that Northern Ireland’s MPs might affect the balance of power at Westminster. It feels a bit like the concerns in the 1950s that integrating Malta into the UK might allow its MPs to do the same in close elections. But unlike Malta, Northern Ireland already forms part of the UK. Its MPs have every right to a say in its governance, as do MPs from England, Scotland and Wales.

This is a basic principle of fair treatment of the UK’s constituent countries. It also goes to the heart of the principle of consent in the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement recognises that Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK is based on the will of its people and can only be changed by that same will. Membership of the UK confers certain rights, including a voice in the House of Commons. If you don’t grant the region the right to its say in excepted and reserved matters and its voice in Parliament — and if your view is essentially that it can only have that voice so long as it never decides anything, you’re only granting that right in the narrowest possible way, if at all — you’ve got a pretty shallow understanding of the principle of consent.

It’s natural that, say, Sinn Féin’s leadership would argue Northern Ireland politicians should have no role in helping form a UK Government. They’re an abstentionist party and they seek a united Ireland. And of course they have every right to that position. If Northern Ireland and the Republic ever wish to form a united Ireland, the UK should give effect to it without demur.

But in the meantime, there’s no need for the rest of us to take a very specific view of legitimacy at face value. Northern Ireland’s rights within the UK extend further than simply not expelling it from the body politic. Whatever you think of the DUP, we should all remember that.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 20 June 2017.

On electoral responsibility

Elections are brutal things. Politicians usually do what they need to do to win. Frankly, as a Labour member I often wish we were more ruthless.

Still, a politician fighting for votes should always remember there remains a country waiting to be governed afterwards. There is no dead of night into which your silliest turns of phrase or your most careless commitments disappear. Theresa May’s predecessor was sunk by one of his most careless commitments: I imagine he could advise.

When it comes to silly turns of phrase, politicians should also remember hurt feelings have consequences. The United Kingdom proved that how people feel matters on 23 June 2016. As a result, we now face our most challenging and complex negotiations in many decades. In those negotiations, 27 other countries hold almost all the cards. The Union they form together has clear principles of its own. It has a vital interest in preventing British free-riding leading to other countries trying the same thing. And it currently has higher priorities than pure economics, as the UK of all countries should understand just now.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May and her ministers have promised the British people they can have their preferred EU benefits (or near as damnit) without the obligations. She spoke the language of antagonistic nationalism to please her party’s zealots at Conference. She threatened where she should have conciliated. She rattled sabres instead of building bridges, and she failed at every turn to manage expectations. And today she chose, after a leak highlighting the hubris and ineptitude of her government’s Brexit ‘strategy’ — probably aimed at warning the German public they might have to pay a fair bit more if the talks collapse — to accuse the very people whose goodwill she needs most after 8 June of ‘interfering in our elections’.

I presume Mrs May called this vote because she felt confident about the outcome. Politicians are not in the habit of ceding three years in office on a whim. So by her own lights, she can presumably afford a modicum of statesmanship. She can afford to start preparing the public for the climbdowns which will be required for a deal. She backed Remain, however quietly, and she knows Vote Leave sold a pack of lies to win. She knows we can’t have what they promised.

At some point, one of two things will happen. British expectations will gradually return to earth, allowing us to move towards some inferior-but-not-devastating deal with the EU over time. Or British expectations will meet EU reality and the result will be a car crash. It seems our Prime Minister deems the latter worth making more likely in the cause of (in her view) winning a majority of 140 rather than 120.

I imagine it will indeed win votes. But seeking to govern is not just about seeking votes. This irresponsibility may well come back to haunt Mrs May, even if she wins her mandate. She will richly deserve it, if so.

It’s just a shame it will come back to haunt the country too.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 3 May 2017.

Free votes: or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Whip

Free votes are funny things, and much overrated. We always have them for changing parliamentary procedure. We normally have them on things like abortion, equal marriage and euthanasia: essentially, ‘God issues’. Sometimes, we have them for no very obvious reason: fox-hunting was a case in point. And occasionally, we have them to make a point: Ted Heath held one on the ‘in principle’ vote for entering the EEC in 1972, largely to encourage Labour to split as badly as possible on the same issue.

It’s easy to see why they appeal. We complain about spineless lobby fodder, MPs with no independence of thought, rigid party dogma and so on. Allowing a freewheeling debate, with MPs able to vote their conscience, sounds great (though actually, plenty of MPs rebel). You even hear people saying we shouldn’t have whips at all.

But there’s a reason why in practice, MPs usually get free votes when either the party doesn’t care too much, the outcome isn’t in doubt, religion comes into play or party management means leaders think they have no choice. Equal marriage is important to me personally, for instance, but the whole of government policy on tax, benefits and inheritance wouldn’t have fallen apart if it hadn’t gone through. Not everything can be separated out so neatly.

Take the free vote principle too far, and eventually governments can’t govern coherently at all. If the Budget is completely rewritten by a series of splits, you’re not going to get a massively improved document with better policy for all: you’ll probably get a complete mishmash with everyone running round to try and square all the contradictions after Parliament has voted.

If you run a foreign policy on a ‘voting at will’ basis, you’ll also get an incoherent mess. The Government’s decision to allow Cabinet ministers to campaign against each other in the EU referendum and Labour’s free vote on Syria both illustrate the point. EU membership and decisions on military action are fundamental to UK policy. You can’t just say ‘Well, we’re neutral on leaving the EU, but basically our foreign, security and economic policies are the same either way’ or ‘Well, we don’t have a line on military action in Syria, but basically our policy on the Middle East is the same either way’. These decisions are game-changers: if you don’t have a position on them, you don’t have much of a position full stop.

Too many free votes don’t just make governing harder: they blur government accountability. Most people don’t think they vote for their individual MP: they think they vote for their preferred government, or their preferred party, or to send a message of some kind. The link between how we vote in an election and what policies we get depends, ultimately, on ensuring that MPs from a given party usually vote the same way. I don’t want a completely unwhipped Parliament for the same reason I don’t want a House of Commons filled with independents: parties may be unpopular, but they’re also necessary.

This isn’t to say MPs should be partisan lobby-fodder: dissent is important. But you can’t dissent when there’s nothing to dissent from. Most of the time, governments have to set out their stall and make sure their MPs are happy enough with the collective line that they can get it through Parliament. Rebellions serve a purpose, but so do concerns expressed on the floor of the House or in Committee: they allow for an interplay between a government and its MPs.

And if enough of your MPs won’t toe your preferred line, then you usually need to change it. When Labour MPs made it clear to Jeremy Corbyn that they wouldn’t be led down anything other than a pro-European path, that was the principle of parliamentary democracy at work. To his credit, he gave way, and Labour will now campaign to stay in the EU. No leader can survive without the acquiescence of the MPs they’re meant to lead. Tony Blair shouldn’t have had a free vote on Iraq: he should have had a policy with which MPs were more comfortable.

So yes, we need MPs who don’t always toe the party line. Sometimes MPs have to rebel. But let’s not confuse valuing dissent with not taking a position at all.