Over the past 2 years we have heard a lot about “democracy” and “the will of the people”. Here in the UK we are in the final stages of the Brexit process that seals our departure from membership of the EU.
Throughout the process, and negotiations with the EU, much has been said about the risk to democracy if the result of the Brexit referendum is not honoured. Let’s be clear, the “will of the people”, expressed in a first-past-the-post referendum where a sizeable proportion of the electorate failed to vote at all, was at best marginal. 52%/48%.
However, nothing has been said about the risk to democracy posed by a handful of Northern Irish MPs representing the Democratic Unionists (DUP). The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap election in June 2017 because she thought that her opposition, The Labour Party, was in disarray and would lose. She had an overall working majority but wanted a bigger one, and she also wanted to wound the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who was not wholly supported by his own MPs.
She actually lost 13 seats and, with them, her overall majority: we got a ‘hung parliament’ instead. What’s more Jeremy Corbyn’s reputation was enhanced, not diminished. Rather than stand down, Theresa May sought a coalition to prop her up but the only party willing, and with enough MPs, was the Democratic Unionists (DUP). It is worth noting that the DUP is anti-abortion, anti Gay marriage, has questionable views on climate change. The DUP represents a minority of the Ulster electorate: in the 2017 UK election they polled (rounded) 290,000 votes out of a potential electorate of 1,200,000. The turnout was 65%. The consequence of her miscalculation, the importance of which cannot be overstated, is that she handed 10 DUP MPs control of the Brexit process. The island of Ireland is divided by a border between the north (Ulster) and The Republic Of Ireland which, despite its bloody history, was ‘open’ because both parties were in the EU and, critically, an open border is a conrnerstone of the 1998 so-called “Good Friday Agreement” which brought an end to 30 years of open armed conflict between the paramilitary wings of the Nationalists (Catholics) and Unionists (Protestants). When the UK leaves the EU the border will again become a land border between the UK and the EU because The Republic will remain a member of the EU, and without an agreement that border will have to be policed in some way. The answer was to cobble together a so-called “Back Stop”. The “Back Stop” is a process by which (in absence of a Brexit agreement) the EU cannot keep the UK in a relationship with the EU, the North cannot be ceded to the Republic, or separated from the rest of the UK, in thought, in deed or even symbolically.
Ever since the 2017 UK election the DUP tail, headed by Arlene Foster, has wagged the UK dog. Before they even signed the agreement to support the UK government, they were promised £2 billion of investment for Ulster (when the rest of the UK was being starved of funds). It was a massive bribe from one unionist party (The Conservatives) to another.
This distortion of “democracy” has also to be seen in the context of the dysfunctional power sharing politics of Ulster. As part of the post-Good Friday Agreement process, government of Northern Ireland was devolved to a power sharing executive and assembly based in Stormont castle. For the past 2 and a half years there has been no administration in Stormont. In November 2016 a scandal emerged surrounding a Renewable Heat Incentive (also referred to as the RHI scandal or ‘Cash for Ash’), signed off by the then First Minister Arlene Foster (yes, the same Arlene Foster) in 2012. Its mismanagement had cost the Northern Ireland Executive £480m. The Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned in protest and that brought the government down. For those unfamiliar with British / UK politics and history, Sinn Fein are Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland (with the Republic), while Unionists want to be part of the UK for ever. They cannot agree to restart government. Furthermore, Sinn Fein has 7 MPs elected to Westminster but they do not sit there as they refuse to recognise the UK Parliament’s right to legislate for any part of Ireland, and they refuse the loyal oath to the Queen of the UK. If they were to take their seats, the balance of power in Westminster might be affected.
Arlene Foster and the DUP has been instrumental in frustrating Brexit, refusing to support the government because it gives them effective control over the “Back Stop”. What is more, since the failure of Theresa May to secure general parliamentary support for her negotiated withdrawal from the EU, and the imminent danger of an exit without an agreement, Arlene Foster has been visibly shuttling between The Republic and The UK government negotiating God knows what further concessions from both. Arlene Foster’s father was a policeman, and wounded in the ‘troubles’ by the IRA, so her background is unlikely to be conducive to conciliation. It’s not hard to imagine the mistrust in the nationalist community over this.
There you have it, the price of upholding the “democracy” of the Brexit referendum result: £2 billion and counting, a handful of votes, smouldering mistrust on the island of Ireland. The so-called “will of the people” held hostage by 10 MPs, who represent a minority in their own land. Never mind the 60 million of us who live “on the mainland” of Britain, never mind the fragile future of power sharing and peace on the trouble island of Ireland, and never mind (definitely) the £480 million of the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal. All of this rooted in Theresa May’s personal and political hubris.
So, don’t talk to me about Brexit being a threat to “democracy” or “the will of the people”. If you are worried about either of those you should look west to Ireland, and Ulster.