Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaving No.10 Downing Street. Phil Noble/Reuters

After a poor election showing, Britain's prime minister is courting a right-wing party that fights women’s rights and marriage equality. That might seriously stoke dormant tensions in Northern Ireland.

In British national politics, Belfast rarely gets star billing nowadays. This is partly because political violence in Northern Ireland’s capital city has plummeted since the 1990s. It’s also partly because the province’s intricate, complex history of sectarian strife makes many English people deeply uncomfortable. Now Northern Irish politics has raced back into British public debate in the most abrupt way possible.

Following an unexpectedly poor showing in last Thursday’s election, Theresa May’s Conservative Party no longer possesses a majority in Parliament. To make their continuing government viable, they are brokering an agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 members would, when combined with those of May’s Conservatives, give the government a narrow working majority of two seats.

The agreement—which stops short of an actual coalition—will buy time for May’s government, but it risks seriously upsetting the political equilibrium in Belfast at a time when it is under intense stress. After steadily moving on from years of conflict, tensions have been ramping up, punctuated by regional elections in March that left Northern Ireland’s assembly in a deadlock. If there’s no breakthrough, the province (which has some political autonomy) must return to direct rule from London.

Into all this wanders May’s Conservatives, with all the subtlety of a wounded moose trying to play Jenga. They risk not only upsetting the balance of power, but possibly undercutting the very peace agreement that allowed de-escalation of sectarian strife in Belfast. Under the terms on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, both the British and Irish governments are bound to to retain “rigorous impartiality.” This impartiality has always leaned somewhat more toward the theoretical than the actual, but it’s blown out of the water when the British government is actively allied with a group of Protestant militants whose opinions and policies commonly elicit gasps of disbelief.

This is a party whose signature brand of conservatism makes the Republican Party look like the last day of Burning Man. DUP representatives have in the past blamed Hurricane Katrina on gay people (in 2005), advocated the aerial bombardment of the Republic of Ireland (in 1986), damned line dancing as “an incitement to lust” (date unknown, probably 1980s), called male homosexuality “worse than child abuse” (2008) and declared themselves unaware that heterosexuals could contract HIV (November 2016). British people are well aware of this history—former DUP leader Ian Paisley, who died in 2014, is still a well-recognized figure across Britain after making a name for himself in the 1970s and ‘80s for denouncing the pope as the Antichrist.

There’s a dark humor to all this—or rather, there would be if the DUP didn’t have real power in Northern Ireland, and now a critical role to play in the U.K.’s ongoing political shuffle. Demands by the DUP suggest they will try to milk this opportunity for all it’s worth. Among the initial chief requests from their supporters was a request to lift a ban on Protestants marching through certain Catholic areas during annual parades celebrating the 1690 Protestant victory over Catholic forces at the Battle of the Boyne. The marches are a badge of identity for some Protestant Northern Irish, but they have also been a focal point for bitter strife in the past. There’s no guarantee that bans on marching through specific contentious areas will be revoked, but the fact that DUP supporters are even pushing for such a thing shows the dangers inherent in the U.K. government forging an alliance that overtly favors one side of the sectarian divide.

An Orange March passing through a Belfast neighborhood in 2016. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Along with some other Northern Irish parties, the DUP have already flexed their local muscle to ensure that rights permitted in the U.K. as a whole are off limits to Northern Ireland’s residents. Abortion remains illegal, including in cases of rape, unless the mother’s life can be proven to be at risk. The DUP has also made a special effort to block marriage equality for the province. In 2015 a majority of representatives in Northern Ireland’s assembly voted in favor of marriage equality (civil partnerships are already permitted), but the DUP used its powers of veto to cancel the ruling.

This is the ultimate in political bad faith. Northern Ireland’s veto rules—where any party with more than 30 assembly members can veto law changes—are designed to prevent one religious community lording it over the other. Using this veto on a bipartisan, non-sectarian issue such as marriage equality means using powers designed to prevent religious strife to quash democracy. It is, I suppose, what you might expect from a party that conducted a campaign to keep homosexuality criminalized called Save Ulster From Sodomy. These are the people, I repeat, on whom the current U.K. government’s survival now depends.

How could May let the DUP remotely close to power? The official line, not explicitly stated, seems to be that none of this DUP backwardness, ignorance, and cruelty will be allowed to affect government policy. The party favors Brexit and (in contrast to the considerably more powerful Scottish National Party) keeping the U.K. together, so as long as they can be harnessed for general Conservative (with a capital C) ends and otherwise kept in their place, where’s the harm?

The rhetoric isn’t matched by action. Prime Minister May has already taken to calling her party by its official (but rarely used) name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. She also just named the DUP’s David Lidington—a man who has opposed extending rights to LGBT people in every single vote of his career—as Justice Secretary, a post whose responsibilities include the court and prison systems and the judiciary. Already Conservative MPs have suggested that a nice way to show generosity toward their DUP allies would be to shorten the legal time limit for abortion.

The DUP’s small number of MPs means they won’t be able to push through their entire agenda, something that is perhaps more easy to console yourself with if you are neither LGBT nor a woman. Negotiations with the DUP are most likely to secure extra cash for Northern Ireland, in part to compensate for a future loss of EU subsidies. The likely strongest effect their collaboration with the Conservatives will have is in possibly creating a softer attitude to Brexit, should Theresa May’s government remain in power to implement that.

The DUP are strongly against a hard border (that is, one with ID controls) with the Republic of Ireland. They are also against special rules that might suggest Northern Ireland is not part of the U.K. This means that the country as a whole is somewhat more likely to have a less rigid approach to freedom of movement between the U.K. and the rest of Europe. But as the government arms itself with DUP support to advance its (still hazy) vision of Brexit, it is taking huge risks with the country’s internal stability while simultaneously alienating many female and LGBT voters.

About the Author

Feargus O'Sullivan
Feargus O'Sullivan

Feargus O'Sullivan is a London-based contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on Europe.

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