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Thursday, February 15, 2018

The £1 billion cost of DUP intransigence

Talks to restore the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland collapsed yesterday, as the DUP said there was no prospect of a compromise with Sinn Féin and accused Theresa May of an unhelpful and distracting visit to Belfast earlier this week.

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster added to Theresa May's woes on Tuesday by ruling out any current prospect of a compromise between the DUP and Sinn Féin. The Guardian reports that the former first minister and her party say they have been shaken by the level of opposition within the DUP and in the wider unionist community over any deal that would include a standalone Irish language act as demanded by Sinn Féin.

In contrast, Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in the deadlocked Northern Ireland assembly, has said that her party “worked in good faith, we stretched ourselves” and indicated it had believed a deal was close:

“We had reached an accommodation with the leadership of the DUP. The DUP failed to close the deal. They have now collapsed this process. These issues are not going away,” she said. “Sinn Féin are now in contact with both governments and we will set out our considered position tomorrow. The DUP should reflect on their position.”

It is impossible to know the truth of course as to what has been going on behind closed doors, but I doubt if the Prime Minister would have travelled to Ireland if she did not believe that a deal was imminent. Furthermore, the reasons given by the DUP for walking away from the deal do not strike me as anything more than convenient excuses.

The Good Friday agreement was secured because of exceptional leadership on both sides by politicians who were prepared to face down the doubts expressed by their respective communities. The DUP do not appear to want to repeat that feat, largely because they are now in a position where direct rule suits them.

They have secured a £1 billion Barnett-busting boost to the Northern Irish coffers, and are able to exercise extraordinary leverage in 10 Downing Street by virtue of their position as the deal-makers who are keeping Theresa May in power. Why should they do a deal with their Sinn Féin nemesis, when they can exercise power without them through the British state.

The Tory deal with the DUP has not just torpedoed devolved government but it has also created a dangerous situation in Ireland. The DUP are the tail wagging the dog over Brexit. The current determination to leave the single market will destroy the Good Friday agreement and re-establish barriers between North and South that will damage both countries.

If the only prospect for long-term peace across the Irish Sea is for the Prime Minister to walk away from her deal with the DUP, then she should have the courage to do so. At present that deal is poisoning Northern Irish politics and the rot is spreading to Westminster and beyond.
One of the reasons the DUP have given for not forming an executive is the Irish language issue. Amongst other things they claim that bilingual road signs are "divisive". From memory English is the dominant language in Swansea. Are bilingual road signs in Swansea "divisive"?
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