The results are in and the General Election 2017 returned a hung parliament. The Conservatives have formed a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party. You can read my initial response to the result here.
Two comments seem to be coming to the fore which seem worth addressing. The first revolves around the DUP. There are those who have labelled the party both ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorist sympathisers’. The second concerns Brexit. There are some arguing that because Theresa May intended to increase her mandate for leaving the EU, the election result amounts to a rejection of Brexit. Today, I shall deal with the first issue related to the DUP and tomorrow I shall deal with the other on Brexit.
Let me put my cards on the table. My undergraduate History & Politics degree focused primarily on the history and politics of Northern Ireland. My dissertation was about the political development of the the UDA and UVF (the two largest loyalist paramilitary groups in the region). My Theology master’s thesis focused upon the politicisation of Evangelicals in Northern Ireland and specifically looked at the question of whether Evangelicals had ever been involved in, supported or encouraged loyalist paramilitarism. This included an extensive look at the history of the DUP alongside a chapter dedicated to how Evangelicals had been politicised more generally through the party. I’m not sure I qualify as an ‘expert’ but I would like to think this gives me some level of understanding on these issues.
In my MA thesis, the chapter titled Evangelicals and Loyalist Paramilitary Organisations opens with the the following:
Northern Irish Evangelicals are, by and large, neither involved in nor sympathetic to the aims and means of loyalist paramilitary organisations. Likewise, although loyalist paramilitaries draw upon the rhetoric of Evangelicalism it is true to say they are far from motivated by religious values.
Some have sought to implicate Ian Paisley, and other DUP leaders, in paramilitary violence and tend to find only meagre support with reference to links with the Ulster Protestant Volunteers and Ulster Resistance.
The former were instituted by Paisley but were linked to paramilitarism after a bombing campaign in 1969. Paisley was implicated because three Free Presbyterian members of his denomination had been involved. Nonetheless, David Boulton notes that Paisley included a clause in the UPV constitution stating:
Any members associated with, or giving support to, any subversive or lawless activities whatsoever shall be expelled from the body. (Boulton, D., The UVF, 1966-73)
This specific clause was used to expel Johnny McKeague when his involvement came to light. It should be noted that the three men involved in the UPV bombing were acting alone and without the consent or knowledge of either their church nor UPV division.
In an interview with Noel Doherty – another perpetrator of the UPV bombing campaign – Peter Taylor quizzed the UPV man on the involvement of Ian Paisley. In response to the question of whether he had mentioned weapons to Paisley, Doherty said:
Never. Never. I would never trust him… Let’s put it this way. He was OK as a figurehead whilst we would do the job underneath him. He didn’t know. He may have had an inkling. He may have, but certainly we never told him. (Loyalist: Ulster’s Protestant Paramilitaries)
Billy Mitchell, also involved in UPV, confirmed this view. Taylor goes on to state, ‘as neither man today has any love for Paisley, and neither knew I was interviewing the other, there is no reason to believe they were being economical with the truth’.
As for the idea that DUP members were involved in paramilitarism through Ulster Resistance, the suggestion simply doesn’t stack up. In response to the 1986 Anglo-Irish Accord several DUP leaders – including Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson – were invited to lead Ulster Resistance. By 1987, Steve Bruce states, ‘this third force had dribbled away to leave a small handful of County Armagh loyalists who collaborated with the UVF and UDA in a bank robbery in Portadown in July 1987 to fund a large purchase of arms from South Africa’. Bruce goes on to note, ‘by now the DUP leadership had divorced itself from the rump Ulster Resistance’ (Paisley: religion and politics in Northern Ireland).
Peter Taylor states, in relation to Paisely’s Third Force initiatives – including Ulster Resistance – ‘he was thinking more of a home guard than a UDA or UVF’ (Loyalists), with Steve Bruce stating his intentions were ‘benign’. In his interviews with men from Ulster Resistance, Taylor deliberately sought evidence that Paisley had been involved in the plan to buy weapons and/or approved of their use. He states: ‘Paisley, I am told, was never present at any meetings where arms were discussed’.
Steve Bruce notes that Ian Paisley and the DUP has consistently denounced and condemned paramilitary violence. He comments:
the record of his church and party offers good evidence for a conclusion quite the opposite of what is commonly supposed: far from encouraging vigilante violence, Evangelicalism inoculates people against its appeal.
In fact, Bruce offers this insightful comment:
it is worth stressing that very many people (journalists in particular) have an interest in proving that Paisley was involved in serious crimes. There are thousands of photographs of Paisley with his mouth wide open shouting; there are none of him hitting anyone. Had he done so at all often, we would expect the photographs to exists and command a high price. Given the financial rewards that the tabloid press would have given to anyone who could produce convincing evidence of more serious crimes, the absence of such evidence is surely telling.
In response to the ‘no smoke without fire justification’, Bruce simply states, ‘with so many people having such a strong interest in finding the fires, were they there, we would have seen the evidence by now’.
Enough people have dedicated their careers to implicating Ian Paisley and the DUP in paramilitary activities. You will not find any academics working in the area of Northern Irish politics, contemporary peace processes nor Irish history defending that claim. Neither Ian Paisley, not the DUP, have supported nor been involved in illegal paramilitary activities.
There is a great deal to dislike about the DUP. Their politics are far removed from mine and those Evangelicals within the party work out their faith in a way that is quite distinct from my Evangelicalism. Nonetheless, my interest was first piqued in relation to Northern Ireland when I heard consistent claims that Ian Paisley was a man no better than, or just as dangerous as, the religious fundamentalists in Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The claim has been made repeatedly and seems to be based on little more than Paisley’s Evangelical beliefs. It is utterly preposterous when weighed against the evidence.
Early on in my academic endeavours, I found myself in the unenviable position of defending a man with whom I differed on almost every point of politics due to the unfair treatment he received. Similar attempts to implicate the DUP also failed to stack up. I am making a plea that we stop drawing this false comparison. The DUP are not, and never have been, terrorist sympathisers. By all means dislike them, but please dislike what they actually think and determine not to like their actual policies rather than this sort of nonsense.
What is, perhaps, worth more scrutiny is the claim that the DUP are ‘extremists’. For the record, I don’t think they are and I believe that term is applied far too broadly. Unfortunately for the government, Theresa May has made apparent she does think they are extremists. Her record on EDOs and her definition of extremism – which you can read about here – most certainly does include and implicate the vast majority of DUP MLAs as extremists. They have supported, defended and fought against many of the things May defines as extremist. Whilst I do not believe the DUP are extremists – May’s definition is far too broad – it is abundantly clear by her own reckoning she is jumping into bed with those she deems extremists. This perhaps ought to be scrutinised further.
Finally, a significant point ought to be made in relation to the power sharing agreement in Northern Ireland. A far bigger problem for the UK is the fact that the the serving British government are now in hock to a major player in the fragile power sharing agreement in Stormont. The Ulster Unionists and SDLP have long been bit players since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The GFA was exploited by both Sinn Fein and DUP, being presented to their respective communities as a sell-out by the former leading parties of Nationalism and Unionism. With Sinn Fein painting themselves as more authentically green than the SDLP and the DUP, conversely, the true defenders of the union, both parties became the dominate voice of their communities at which point the SDLP and UUP began their slide into insignificance. This was completed at this election with their return of precisely no Westminster seats.
The issue is that the two dominant parties of Northern Ireland, representing two historically warring communities, were brought into a power sharing agreement in 2006. This led to an agreement that democratically elected members of each community would have a role to play in the Northern Ireland Executive. This led to Ian Paisley – leader of the DUP – becoming First Minister whilst Martin McGuinness – Sinn Fein’s political leader in Northern Ireland – was elected Deputy First Minister. The 1998, and subsequent 2006, agreements were a tacit admission on the part of Sinn Fein/IRA that they had lost the war. It was certainly viewed by Unionists as such who were prepared to share power in the knowledge the union was safe. The tensions between the two still exist as evidenced by Martin McGuinness’ willingness to bring the power sharing executive down prior to his death earlier this year.
The problem here is that traditionally the British government were the ones to broker peace in Northern Ireland. Given the suspicion among the Catholic community of the British, their interests were often negotiated by America. Since George W. Bush determined that terrorism perhaps isn’t all that great – a point America only appeared to understand after the 2001 World Trade Centre atrocity – the American government ceased funding the IRA (something successive British governments pleaded with them to stop to no avail). Along with a removal of their funds went the removal of their negotiators. Since Sinn Fein accepted the terms of the power sharing agreement, the British government have been the predominant broker in Northern Ireland. This, traditionally, has meant a neutral position. Herein lies the problem: neutrality is a position that will now be impossible to maintain as a government openly propped up by DUP support. The government are in hock to the Unionists in a fragile power sharing executive that relies upon neutrality from the British power brokers.
Some of this is unlikely to matter long term. Just as the 2010 coalition agreement turned toxic, the current deal Con-DUP agreement is unlikely to fair any better. Not least, DUP politics are to the hard-right of the Conservatives. Their opposition to Same-Sex Marriage and their staunch pro-life position are unlikely to win them many plaudits in Great Britain. Whilst these policies can play well in Northern Ireland – an area where policy is always second to sectarianism and your position on the union will determine your vote long before any policies are discussed – these views are toxic in the rest of the UK. Their link to the Conservatives will inevitably lead to guilt by association and I would be highly surprised if we do not see another election before long. Whatever else you may want to say about the Lib Dems, they have wider appeal within the UK than the DUP could ever hope to attain. Given how the Con-Lib relationship went sour, there seems little hope for one that will be widely considered to be more regressive.