Theresa May isn’t the only recent Conservative Prime Minister to govern with a minority of MPs in Parliament, to deal with the complexities of Northern Irish politics, and to negotiate a bespoke deal between the UK and Brussels.
Sir John Major’s government lost its majority in 1996, just as his government was still laying the groundwork for the Northern Ireland peace process to progress further under Tony Blair.
Today the former Prime Minister said he was “dubious” about any deal between the Conservatives and the DUP. Given his experience in the 90s, his views are worth considering.
As in the election campaign itself, Northern Ireland has oddly resurfaced as a bit of a political football at Westminster. At one extreme, some Conservatives insist that any arrangement with the DUP will have no effect whatsoever on the internal dynamic of Northern Ireland politics. Michael Gove has suggested that a deal will “strengthen the Union,” despite the deep unease of Conservatives in Northern Ireland to whom the DUP’s brand of unionism is anathematic.
At the other end of the scale, senior Labour figures have suggested that the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process are in immediate danger, despite the fact that Gordon Brown had considered doing a parliamentary deal with the DUP in 2010. We must also remember that the SDLP, in many ways the most enthusiastic architect of the Good Friday Agreement, informally took the Labour Party whip at Westminster.
It is irresponsible either to complacently suppose that a DUP-Conservative deal will have no effect at all on Northern Ireland’s political dynamics, or to sensationalise any of these potential effects without any sense of perspective.
Leaving speculative questions of peace and violence to one side, we must start with what we do know. The bottom line is that Northern Ireland politics are fragile, as Sir John Major reminds us:
I think we have to take care with it and take care that everything we do does not exaggerate the underlying differences that still are there in the Northern Ireland community.
After a highly polarising general election in Northern Ireland and the prolonged absence of a power-sharing administration, unionist and nationalist representatives have been moving further and further apart. They were going to have plenty of differences, irrespective of the present circumstances.
The challenge for Theresa May, as Sir John points out, is to avoid doing anything to make a difficult situation even more difficult. She can do this in two very practical ways.
First, she should avoid a formal deal with the DUP. There is nothing to stop the DUP from lending its support to a minority Conservative government, and there is nothing to stop the government to ask for it on a case-by-case basis. But the arrangement should be as loose as possible.
This might seem like quite a gamble, but it’s nothing compared to the one the Prime Minister has just taken by calling the election in the first place. And after all, if the DUP refuses to support a vote of confidence in the government, it risks giving Jeremy Corbyn the keys to Downing Street.
In this case, no deal really could be better than a bad deal for Theresa May.
Second, she should appoint an independent chair of the talks at Stormont. This would be a breathtakingly easy move. A majority of the parties represented at the talks have expressed concerns over the Secretary of State’s impartiality in the talks.
In order to avoid any perception of bias, making such a simple appointment could go a long way to smoothing the road ahead. This doesn’t mean that the talks will be easy, but it would remove a big obstacle that could make them even harder.
As Sir John warns, “I simply think you need to be very wary of what could happen and therefore be very cautious about what you do.”
The Prime Minister has promised colleagues that in the wake of the election she would listen to a broader range of views. She would be wise to pay particular attention to those of her predecessor.
Also published on Medium.