By Mike Anderson
The 2017 UK General Election saw the fall of a Conservative majority, a resurgent Labour Party, and a Northern Ireland dominated by 2 parties (with one independent): the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin. The loss of a majority presents Theresa May’s government with a serious problem: how to maintain government with all parties, bar one, largely unwilling to work with them. That one party willing to work with the Conservatives was the DUP, an Irish Unionist Party. This may not seem like a major problem. Why not have the DUP support the Conservatives? They have similar ideological perspectives on many issues, and the Conservatives need the support to form government. A large part of the problem is international law, and the central role the UK government plays in maintaining the Good Friday Agreement, an agreement that in effect led to the end of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement, or Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta, is made up of two agreements: one between the Governments of the UK and the Republic of Ireland (Poblacht na hÉireann), and another between the parties of Northern Ireland. A notable exception to this second element was the DUP, who did not enter into the agreement. While there were many problems with the agreement’s implementation, one can’t stress enough how big a step an agreement like this was in Northern Ireland. It has brought a relative peace to Ireland. (A side note being the later agreement, the St. Andrews Agreement (Comhaontú Chill Rímhinn) did involve the DUP and went into more contentious areas the parties had not agreed to previously.) A key element that relates to the 2017 scenario is is the status of the UK as an impartial mediator, that acts in good faith to resolve disputes between the parties. Another is the power sharing arrangement, in which there is a joint ministry, and two leaders that have equal power, one from the Nationalist bloc, and the other from the Unionist bloc. These two elements are the reason behind the problems with the Conservative-DUP deal.
Of course if it does present a serious question: why can’t the International Court of Justice (ICJ) just step in? It does have power of international law, doesn’t it? The ICJ’s jurisdiction relies on a country recognising that authority. Unfortunately, Ireland does not recognise the ICJ’s ability to rule on matters relating to Northern Ireland. Even if the ICJ could rule on this matter, the parties involved may well ignore that judgement, much like in Nicaragua v USA (1986). The agreement requires both Ireland and the UK to oversee and assist in maintaining the institution introduced within the agreement. This extends to inter-governmental bodies that exists between the UK, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland.
How does a Conservative agreement with a Northern Irish party pose a threat to the Good Friday Agreement? First, the power sharing agreement relies on Northern Irish parties forming government together, consisting members from both blocs, as referred to earlier. Where there are disputes the respective councils formed via the agreement may assist in mediation, this is a role the UK is meant to fulfil in an impartial manner and in good faith. In the words of former UK Prime Minister John Major, the UK is meant to be “an honest broker” and an agreement with the DUP could present a threat to the impartiality required under the Good Friday Agreement.
Theresa May’s decision to enter a deal with the DUP presents a case that the UK no longer acts in the mutual interest of Northern Irish citizens, and can no longer act as an impartial mediator. There is an implication that the UK Government directly supports the interests of the DUP over other parties. This problem is further exacerbated by the breakdown of a power sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland earlier this year. The Northern Irish Assembly may dissolve where the power sharing arrangement has broken down, this occurred where Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness (the Deputy First Minister, leading the largest Nationalist party) resigned in protest of DUP (the largest Unionist party) actions. This led to an early election, and resulted in a standoff between the nationalists and unionists, and the loss of Unionist majority in the assembly. Due to Sinn Féin’s refusal to enter an agreement until the DUP changed their approach and their leader stood down until an investigation was completed, the situation in Northern Ireland remains unresolved. This has resulted in the UK acting as a mediator, thus acting as both a mediator to the Northern Irish parties while attempting to negotiate a deal with the DUP. This has posed a serious conflict of interest that runs counter to the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Féin are yet to rule out legal action, as questions are still be raised at to legality of a political deal under the Good Friday Agreement. However, at this point in time the agreement Theresa May is attempting to forge with the DUP poses a serious threat to the Good Friday Agreement, and could result in the breakdown of the peace within Northern Ireland that the Good Friday Agreement helped foster.
Mike Anderson is a 2nd year Political Science student. He is currently the Secretary of the UWA Politics Club, and a Deputy Officer of the Access Department. When he isn’t over-committing to clubs and organisations he likes to spend his time studying electoral policy.