As British Tory Prime Minister Theresa May and her officials tried to get a word in edgewise during the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, at home unease about her deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party refuses to diminish. Uproar from many quarters greeted her announcement of a power-sharing arrangement with the Unionists and its high-price tag—new regional development grants and infrastructure projects in Northern Ireland.
In Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, and many others town and cities, the marching season is beginning as Protestants parade through communal streets in the so-called Orange walk (more on that shortly). Some felt obliged to point to the unpleasant similarities between the often combative marchers and the members of Parliament who are now propping up Mrs. May’s fragile administration.
The Conservatives won the recent general election with the largest number of seats but not an overall majority in the House of Commons, so they had to do a deal somewhere with someone. This alliance became more urgent as sagging post-election polls—not helped by Mrs. May’s poor response to the deadly Grenfell Tower fire—left the prime minister looking ever more like a lame-duck premier.
The entire Tory campaign during the general election had been built around the image of Mrs. May as a “strong and stable” leader amid suggestions that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, reaching out to Scottish nationalists, would potentially preside over a “coalition of chaos.” Now, Conservatives have themselves authored a deal that, though falling short of a formal coalition, does itself look chaotic and has left both the Conservatives and the D.U.P. looking opportunistic and tawdry.
Two main concerns trouble people about the political marriage of convenience. The first is its cost. In the election, Mrs. May had used a classic left-vs.-right argument about public spending and Labour’s allegedly uncosted commitments.
In common with the rest of Europe, Brits are mostly more accepting of big spending on infrastructure and public works than, for example, U.S. voters. Within that understanding, the Conservatives, like the right elsewhere, still argue for lower government spending and lower taxes on those who prosper.
Mrs. May and the tiny handful of her cabinet who had been let out in public during the campaign had mocked Mr. Corbyn for imagining a “magic money tree” that would provide the funding for Labour’s promises. Mr. Corbyn had, in turn, proposed heavier taxation on top earners—anathema, of course, to Tory policymakers. But when it proved necessary to negotiate with the D.U.P to secure their support in the House of Commons, the money tree was found and shaken and over £1 billion of public spending promised to the Six Counties of Northern Ireland.
When it proved necessary to negotiate with the D.U.P to secure their support in the House of Commons, the money tree was found and shaken and over £1 billion of public spending promised to the Six Counties of Northern Ireland.
The second concern has been around the attitudes said to be characteristic of Mrs. May’s new best friends among Ulster unionists. Six Counties politics are always bound up with the Northern Ireland’s tribal identities. While not coterminous with religious affiliation, nationalist and unionist parties have been identified with, respectively, Roman Catholics and Presbyterian Protestants.
Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, moderate parties on either side of the nationalist and unionist divide have been squeezed out. On the nationalist/republican side, Sinn Fein dominates. The D.U.P., founded by the late Ian Paisley during his firebrand period, similarly gained ground from more temperate groups. Neither party has ever fully calmed fears over links with illegal paramilitary organizations like the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense Association.
A dimension of the asymmetry that made the Northern Ireland Troubles so intractable for so long, one that the rest of Britain barely understood, was that the nationalist/republican case was largely built on economic matters and demands for equal civil rights, countering the injustice of sectarianism and majority domination that had led to their being second-class citizens. Theirs was never a struggle over religious dogma or Catholic theology. Few members of either party much darken the church door.
The unionist cause has always been about identity as a persistently Protestant people, loyal to the Hanoverian crown and the, for them, potent symbols of the Union flag and the hereditary monarchy. Social attitudes that they tend to express look anachronistic, indeed alarming, to the rest of the current United Kingdom, which is increasingly a post-religious and secularized place. Examples of D.U.P policy that have made people uncomfortable have included denials of climate change, advocacy of creationism, a hard line on abortion and opposition to gay rights. These are the people now keeping a Conservative government in power, and many are unhappy about it.
Rooted in the 1690 victory (with papal support) of King William of Orange over the Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne, the Orange Walk is defended by its proponents as an inviolable symbol of a people and their culture. But for those not of the Orange persuasion, these summer marches are always experienced as antagonistic displays of power.
Especially in the Six Counties, but also in some U.K. cities such as Glasgow and Liverpool, nationalist communities are sure that these marches express domination, that the nationalists/Catholics are to be kept in their subordinate place. Last week’s major Orange march in Glasgow became particularly controversial, first because police permission and protection for it was granted and then because the proscribed “Famine Song” (“The famine’s over, why don’t you go home?” sung to the tune of “Sloop John B”) and other reprehensible ditties were sung openly. (Police Scotland later said that video evidence would be scrutinized with a view to possible prosecutions.)
In 1999, the persistent undercurrent of bigotry and sectarianism in Scottish society was dubbed by the eminent composer James MacMillan, himself a Catholic, “Scotland’s Shame.” There and elsewhere in Britain a Tory alliance with a political party closely aligned to the soi-disant Orange Order and all it stands for is unconscionable.
The irony of these marches in many towns coinciding with one of the world’s biggest gay pride marches through central London was lost on nobody except perhaps those orange-clad D.U.P. members. Union flags flew over one parade, rainbow flags over the other. That the regressive policies of the D.U.P could now influence Westminster policymaking, even more than the deal’s cost, creates much more alarm than the pride march ever could.