Newton Emerson: All bets are off on a Stormont deal while DUP has a hold over Tory government
Re-elected DUP MPs David Simpson and Jim Shannon began their acceptance speeches with lengthy thanks to God - not in the figurative sense of thanking God the Westminster contest was over, but in the literal sense, as if they had piled up proxy votes from Jesus. It was a reminder that both communities in Northern Ireland, nationalists no less than unionists, have now staked their fate on two parties that are still objectively rather odd.
This election has raised innumerable questions and the answer to one will most determine how our politics responds. Having come to dominate each community through mutual antagonism, will the DUP and Sinn Féin now try to be more like all their voters? Or will they just expect their voters to keep them dominant by default?
Unlike in March, this week’s vote was not widely described as an election to a negotiation. However, many voters were clearly treating it as such and Stormont negotiations are due to recommence on Monday. There had been a consensus these talks would conclude in September, with another assembly election in early October. But now all bets are off - Sinn Féin may not want to do a deal at Stormont while the DUP has a hold over the British government, while the DUP will be focused on London and concerned about how long a British government might last. It is entirely possible that Northern Ireland could be heading to the polls twice more this year - once more for Westminster, then again for the assembly. Sinn Féin will also be keeping an eye on the prospect of a general election in the Republic, where incoming Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is about to take the reins of a minority administration. We don’t get to vote on that one though. Yet.
From the moment the shock exit poll was published on Thursday night, everyone had great fun pointing out how Sinn Féin’s abstentionism was putting a Tory-DUP alliance in power. The mathematical window for this outcome is so small that hitting it almost straight on is flabbergasting - although something like it has happened before, from 1974 to 1979, when one SDLP MP and one Independent Republican MP propped up a Labour government with a majority of zero. Naturally, the DUP is ecstatic at its kingmaker role, having expected to lose all its Westminster leverage. But this new power comes at the price of having to help a weakened Conservative Party manage a soft Brexit, which will inevitably involve a strong all-Ireland dimension. If it is any consolation, this will horrify Sinn Féin as well.
A feature of this election was unionist shrieking and gurning about a plot to steal postal and proxy votes, although - as Sinn Féin calmly pointed out - the Electoral Office insisted everything was in order. A feature of the last election was Sinn Féin shrieking and gurning about a plot to remove voters from the electoral register, although - as unionists calmly pointed out - the Electoral Office insisted everything was in order. Therefore, by the immutable law of getting it from both sides, the Electoral Office is impartial. I trust this settles the matter.
In further two wrongs making a right, Sinn Féin and the DUP spent the week before polling jibing at each over a UDA endorsement and canvassing by Sean Kelly, the Shankill bomber. Sinn Féin said Kelly was “working for peace” and noted a faction of the UDA has been linked to last month’s murder in Bangor. The DUP said that made it all the more important to do the same work with the rest of the UDA. All this wonderful work for peace takes place in the context of Stormont’s Social Investment Fund (SIF), which splits an £80m pot between loyalist and republican areas. Although Sinn Féin and the DUP ended up waving SIF publicity pictures at each other to highlight their alleged hypocrisy, neither called the fund itself into question. It remains one of the few things they have not fallen out over.
Brexit is no longer the only threat to a porous border. The terrorist attack in London last weekend has drawn popular attention in Britain to the Common Travel Area as a security weak spot - a concern intelligence experts have been voicing for years. One of the London attackers married an Irish woman in Dublin in 2012 in order to enter the UK. Three years earlier, he had been arrested in Scotland after getting off a ferry from Northern Ireland. The actual weak spot in the system is a 2011 Brussels directive, adopted by Ireland, requiring the Common Travel Area to be opened to non-EU spouses. Can Dublin repeal that for our sakes, and would that be enough for a British public now reading headlines about a “terrorist back door” in Ireland?