Brexit

Theresa May's Troubles and 'The Troubles'

A Tory-Democratic Unionist deal will shake up politics in Belfast and beyond.

Troubled past.

Photographer: Stephen Wilson/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, the newly elected Prime Minister of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, emerged from his meeting with his British counterpart, Theresa May, promising good news. Varadkar said he was satisfied May would not jeopardize the peace agreement in Northern Ireland in her efforts to secure the support of that province’s Democratic Unionist Party for her government.

QuickTake Q&A: Ireland's Border

Yet even if this is true, it is unrealistic to hope that a deal between the Tories and the DUP will have no impact on the politics of Northern Ireland. And if Varadkar is wrong, we could be headed toward a political stalemate or worse, and a possible economic crisis in that corner of the United Kingdom.

May needs the DUP, which is dedicated to keeping Northern Ireland part of the U.K., to join in a “confidence and supply” arrangement, in which its representatives in Westminster would vote with her Conservatives on votes of no-confidence or other key matters such as the budget. This would give the DUP outsized influence, which some worry might be used to put off a referendum on whether the province should remain part of U.K or join Ireland, which was allowed for under certain circumstances by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the “The Troubles.” Varadkar says he’s confident May will not yield to any DUP request to put off the vote.

Most Americans probably believe that the conflict in Northern Ireland was resolved years ago and that the region is now a poster child for successful peacemaking. In some ways this is accurate -- violence has dissipated and political parties from different sides of the conflict have successfully shared power for much of the last two decades. But it would be incorrect to think that tensions are gone and that there is no risk of a return to fraught times.

Longtime U.S. diplomat Richard Haass and I learned this firsthand in 2013 when, at the request of the government of Northern Ireland, we sought -- unsuccessfully -- to help broker a deal to resolve many issues that continue to be the source of tension between communities: Republicans and Unionists, Catholics and Protestants.

If not handled deftly, the region -- already unsettled by Brexit -- could become a much bigger headache for London. Earlier this year, the leading Republican Party, Sinn Fein, suspended its participation in the power-sharing government, leading to its collapse. Since then, the British government, with support from Dublin, has been trying to broker an agreement between the DUP, Sinn Fein and other parties to restart the power-sharing arrangements at Stormont, Northern Ireland’s parliament. A deadline of the end of this month has been set.

The prospect of the DUP becoming the key partner in a Tory government has already slowed down these talks and added a layer of complexity to them. Some speculate that Sinn Fein would prefer to wait to see whether May will face a leadership challenge or if new British elections will be called, rather than to come to any power-sharing agreement with the DUP now, given that it perceives the party to have the upper hand.

A Tory-DUP agreement could have other effects as well. On the positive side of the ledger, it would increase the chances of a “softer” Brexit, particularly as it relates to Northern Ireland, something the DUP has advocated. What exactly this would entail is not yet clear, and May would obviously be unable to guarantee any particular outcome of a long negotiation with the European Union that just began this week. But almost certainly, the DUP -- as well as other parties in Northern Ireland and the Dublin government -- hope to preserve free flow of goods and people across the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, a welcome development since the Good Friday Agreement.

After all, the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on the idea that, over time, borders between countries would become less important, not more.  For those who yearned to reunite the island of Ireland, they could take satisfaction that the border between Northern Ireland and the southern republic would become less and less significant, even if the status of the region as part of the U.K. never changed. In any case, all parties today want to avoid a “hard” Brexit that reimposes a strong border and endangers trade links, which would likely cause both economic hardship and political agitation.

A Tory-DUP deal could, however, also adversely affect the politics of Northern Ireland, even if May makes no promises about staving off a referendum. The Good Friday Agreement requires both the U.K. and Irish governments to be “rigorously impartial” in its implementation. Ten Downing Street and its Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, may believe they can remain honest brokers -- and it is Brokenshire who is trying to negotiate the agreement at Stormont right now. But it is very tough to see how a U.K. government dependent on the DUP for its survival can be perceived as unbiased in its efforts to forge compromises between the DUP and other local parties.

May should not dismiss these legitimate concerns about her government’s role in Northern Ireland’s politics going forward. But in and of themselves, they are probably not sufficient to argue against a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP.

Instead, May should talk with all parties involved about inviting an independent outsider -- perhaps a former senior British official now out of government -- to take the lead in arbitrating political issues in Northern Ireland. There is, of course, a long history of such independent negotiators, with former U.S. Senator George Mitchell being the most notable. As Haass and I can attest, this is no cushy job. But if an independent mediator has the active support of both the U.K. and Irish governments, he or she may be able not only to help restore the government at Stormont, but to get all parties to finally address the issues, such as reckoning with the past, that continue to divide Northern Ireland.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Meghan L. O'Sullivan at Meghan_OSullivan@hks.harvard.edu

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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