Careful whose analysis you buy on Conservative/DUP deal

I cautioned after the General Election about the risks of poor political punditry, and that warning has been plainly justified in the past 45 hours or so. Rarely has so much rubbish been written by so many about so few.

Firstly, the DUP was not given £1b – infrastructure and public services in Northern Ireland were. (Of course, should there be no Executive, the DUP will be the only Northern Ireland party with direct influence over this as it is the only party with representation in the Commons; but it is public money, not the DUP’s.)

Secondly, it is quite normal for parts of the UK to be given money over and above Barnett. Glasgow City Council was once given £500m directly. Whether it is right or wrong, it is hardly unusual.

Thirdly, the biggest expense incurred by the arrangement will not come to Northern Ireland specifically, but to pensioners across the UK through the maintenance of the Triple Lock and Winter Fuel Payment. Again, whether that is right or wrong is a debate to be had, but it is the case.

Fourthly, the arrangement does not directly endanger the Agreement. Of course, if Brexit were mishandled, there are some risks around common treatment of UK and Irish citizens which could breach at least the spirit of the Agreement, but a deal on parliamentary votes in itself does not breach it. After all, three SDLP MPs took the Blair and Brown Government’s whip on every issue throughout its term (even sitting on the government benches), and no one raised any query about that at all.

Fifthly, the best commentators (and there are some, but there is a clear difference between the good and the not so good) have noted the interesting details of the Northern Ireland aspects of the deal. Less than half the infrastructure spend is accounted for by the York Street Interchange, leaving the rest in the hands of future Finance and Infrastructure Ministers (Sinn Féin held both roles until 9 January); most of the Health spend is specifically for transformation and may not otherwise be spent (which means anyone holding up transformation will be deemed to be throwing away £200 million); commitments to shared education have essentially been abandoned (that is, at least, an honest assessment of where the four largest parties are on sharing).

Sixthly, no, the DUP did not ask for marches to be re-routed, creationism to be taught in schools, environmental safeguards to be reduced or even in fact for a single penny towards a Military Covenant. Note well those who thought they would, and heed not their analysis in future!

Seventhly, the DUP will continue to sit on the opposition benches because it is in opposition, just like Fianna Fáil in Dáil Éireann. This is confidence and supply, not coalition.

Eighthly, there is also some misunderstanding on behalf of Northern Ireland-based commentators with regards to Great Britain. Northern Ireland is not, in pure economic or infrastructural terms, a particularly special case. Other regions, not least Wales, are by most measures poorer; and many parts of the UK have inferior roads (and almost all have less comfortable, less punctual trains).

Oh and ninthly, as part of the overall UK Budget, £1b is not much. Some of the ideas around what it could have been spent on in Great Britain are fantasy. As noted above, the cost of the U-turn for pensioners is vastly higher.

Politically, UK-wide, the deal is probably enough to secure the Government through to the end of Brexit negotiations (although nothing is certain), but the numbers remain tight and Brexit will not now be quite as “hard” as once intended. However, it may not last much beyond that and it does not necessarily secure the Prime Minister herself in post for the full two years (indeed, arguably it makes it easier to replace her, in the knowledge that an election is at least twenty months way even from party conference).

In Northern Ireland, the will already existed on the part of the two main parties to restore the institutions so they will in all likelihood be restored (the deal makes little practical difference to this, contrary to many suggestions). Whether all the ducks can be brought into a row to achieve this by the end of the week is another question, and is in the balance.

Further fundamental errors are apparent in the external discussion of how this deal may affect Northern Ireland. There is the assumption that the Agreement itself suddenly brought peace to a warring place; actually that was a gradual process and indeed it is not yet complete (intimidation in the form of gangsterism right up to and including petrol bomb attacks continues to retain a higher degree of tolerance than it would anywhere else in Northern Europe). This assumption leads to a second assumption that somehow one political wrong step would see the whole thing unravel and people in Northern Ireland once again decide that the Troubles were better than the peace they now have (there is not even the means for that to come about, far less the desire). We are at once neither as well integrated nor as inclined towards outright civil war as the external commentariat seems confusedly to think.

Out of interest, many things are actually going rather well in Northern Ireland at the moment, contrary to its reputation as a backwater with nothing to offer but a begging bowl. Tourism is going through the roof; exports are up 14%; in soccer, boxing, motorcycling and other sports the locals are excelling. If politicians from the parties with the biggest mandates were to opt to take responsibility for smoothing things over for the rest of the decade and for using their mandates to engage in real reform, life here could be very good. We will see if they are up to it soon enough.


One thought on “Careful whose analysis you buy on Conservative/DUP deal

  1. Alan Burnside says:

    Very good correction to all the nonsense being spouted from GB.

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