The media response to the prospect of a deal between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) should give Northern Irish MPs some pause for thought. Northern Ireland issues were off the table of national politics throughout much of the seven weeks of the election campaign. The DUP were excluded from national televised debates, even though they were defending the same number of seats in the House of Commons as were the Liberal Democrats; the exit poll did not include the views of Northern Irish voters; and the long list of results on the BBC website includes such miniscule English parties as the Workers Revolutionary Party while excluding much larger entities from Northern Ireland, such as Traditional Unionist Voice, the leader of which, Jim Allister, is a former MEP. The extraordinary result of this election, which has led to negotiations toward a Conservative-DUP deal, has put the province’s distinctive political culture firmly on the radar of national media. But the response to the deal has been vitriolic—a powerful reminder that even many friends of the union find Northern Ireland politics to be toxic.
It is not that British media are opposed in principle to seeing Westminster politicians cooperate with their colleagues from Northern Ireland. Unionist parties from the province have a long history of participating in Westminster power-sharing deals. David Cameron formed an alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party in 2010. The DUP were prepared to work with either Labour or the Conservatives in the aftermath of the hung parliament of 2015, and, as the leaked Hillary Clinton emails suggest, they were actively being courted by Labour. As this ideological flexibility suggests, the DUP are not especially right wing: analysis of their voting record indicates that their MPs have tended to support Labour motions on finance bills. So there is nothing inevitable or necessarily stabilizing about their prospective pact with Theresa May: The experience of multiple governments has been that, as former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke put it in 2010, “you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it’s not the way to run a modern, sophisticated society.” This lack of interest in economic policy might suggest why British media criticism of the DUP has tended to overlook the party’s participation in a badly managed renewable energy scheme that has cost UK taxpayers around £500 million. Earlier this year, Sinn Fein, the DUP’s power-sharing partner in Stormont, used the scandal surrounding this scheme to bring down the province’s devolved government—which is still to be replaced.
Instead, media criticism has focused on the DUP’s policies on “social issues”—and, in particular, abortion and same-sex marriage. While social media is ablaze with indignation, commentators often forget that the DUP’s position on abortion was shared by Sinn Fein until 2015 and is still shared by the SDLP, Labour’s “sister party” in Northern Ireland. The DUP shares its rejection of same-sex marriage with: Barack Obama when he stood for election in 2008; the 22 Labour and 134 Conservative MPs who voted against the second reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in February 2013; and, in fact, the legal provision of the majority of countries in the European Union. The DUP’s position on abortion and same-sex marriage is shared by Northern Ireland’s Catholic bishops, whose pre-election guidance encouraged the faithful to support candidates who endorsed these views—in effect, discouraging Catholics from supporting their traditional and most obvious political representatives—as well as all the largest Protestant denominations. Meanwhile, the claim that the DUP has close links with paramilitaries is being evidenced by the unsolicited and unwanted endorsement of individual candidates by the Loyalist Communities Council—an organisation set up, ironically, by Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff.
But the indignation continues and has reached beyond the party in question to lampoon views that are widely shared across the two communities by resorting to crude images that connive with the prejudices of racists from a bygone era.
British press has resurrected thick Paddy peasants of C19th cartoons – just stuck bowler hats and orange sashes on them. pic.twitter.com/3KFZLy4Lrz
— Damian Thompson (@holysmoke) June 12, 2017
These cartoons evoke the widespread stereotyping of the Irish in 19th-century print culture. They suggest the extent to which Northern Ireland’s unionists have failed to make their case with their partners in the union they wish to maintain, and the extent to which journalists in the metropolitan center cannot differentiate between communities that have struggled over centuries, and at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, to articulate competing narratives of British and Irish identity. But the hostility, imprecision, and prejudice of the British media response to the potential electoral pact indicates that the DUP and its 36 percent of the Northern Ireland vote may have more in common with their nationalist neighbors than they do with the values and aspirations of the metropolitan center around which they have built their identity. For too many London journalists, everyone in the province is Irish.
These are some of what Frantz Fanon might have called the “pitfalls of national consciousness” for Northern Ireland’s unionists. Four centuries after their colonies were established in the northeast of the island, as one veteran commentator on Northern Ireland politics has noted, “White Protestant British Irish folk in Northern Ireland are routinely abused and demonised in a way no other group on these islands are.” Locked in poverty in a “failed state,” that generates from internal tax revenue little more than half of its running costs, protestant working-class boys experience some of the most significant educational disadvantages of any social group within the UK. In Northern Ireland, the descendants of the colonists are abject: “In the past we made history and now it is being made of us,” as Jean-Paul Sartre put it in his preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Fighting for status in Northern Ireland, and fighting for identity within the competing narratives of “British values,” the Protestant working class is caught between the devil and the DUP.
But perhaps the lazy London journalists are right: Perhaps Northern Ireland’s voters do have more in common than they realize. Before they found themselves at the center of a media vortex, it was easy for unionist voters to underestimate the differences between the “social values” that are widely shared on both sides of the sectarian division—as evidenced by the commonalities between the DUP manifesto and the guidance of the Catholic bishops—and those that are current in the rest of the UK. The sudden elevation of the DUP offers a lightning rod for criticism, illustrates that their loyalty is to a Britain that no longer exists, and proves that in terms of social issues they have far more in common with faithful Irish Catholics than with most friends of the union in Westminster.
This is not to propose a solution for the intractable problem of the future of Northern Ireland, for the problem is structural. Northern Ireland’s position as a “failed state,” which gathers in tax revenue only half of what the government spends on it, militates against the possibility of any near-future integration with the Republic. Its financial situation works well for unionist politicians, who use this dependence on external finance to further embed the province within the structures of the UK, but it presents a problem for Irish nationalists—who, having moved support to Sinn Fein, a party that abstains from taking any seats in Westminster, are now without any Parliamentary representation for the first time since 1966. The nationalists will need to oversee a significant reduction in state supply if they are ever to achieve the reunification of the island. Yet unionist voters are locked into dependence on the financial largesse of a very ambivalent “mainland.”
Whatever form it takes, the future of Northern Ireland cannot be secure without major structural changes. A reduction of the gap between tax revenue and public expenditures will make a nationalist future viable, while the reduction of poverty and the educational deficit within Protestant working-class communities is necessary to sustain any unionist future. It remains to be seen whether the Conservative-DUP deal will facilitate either of these possibilities. Kenneth Clarke was patronizing, but he might also have been right: “You can always do a deal with an Ulsterman,” even when it’s in no one’s best interests.