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.

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