Jeremy Corbyn
Credit: Chatham House/Flickr

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party did shockingly well in the British parliamentary elections yesterday and denied the Tories an outright majority of the seats. They might have even been able to form a government if not for Corbyn’s past association with the IRA. Unfortunately, Tory leader Theresa May was able to survive by reaching an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster of Northern Ireland. Opposition to Corbyn was central to DUP’s decision.

DUP figures insist their relationship with May’s team has been close since she became prime minister 11 months ago, and that late-night talks had been driven by their dismay at the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister.

A DUP source said: “We want there to be a government. We have worked well with May. The alternative is intolerable. For as long as Corbyn leads Labour, we will ensure there’s a Tory PM.”

The DUP is socially conservative and opposes abortion and gay rights, so it’s easy to see why it might align itself with the right, but it still could have been otherwise with a different Labour leader with a less controversial past.

The people of Northern Ireland are very concerned about how Brexit (the Brits’ decision to exit the European Union) will impact their border with the Republic of Ireland. They don’t want any disruption of the free flow of people and goods between the two Irelands.

Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, is keen to avoid a hard border with Ireland and has spoken against a “hard Brexit.”

She has said: “No-one wants to see a ‘hard’ Brexit, what we want to see is a workable plan to leave the European Union, and that’s what the national vote was about – therefore we need to get on with that.

“However, we need to do it in a way that respects the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, and, of course, our shared history and geography with the Republic of Ireland.

On this issue, at least, the DUP and Labour were in more natural agreement:

Mr. Corbyn and several other party leaders had criticized Ms. May’s “hard Brexit” approach. Instead, Mr. Corbyn said he would negotiate a deal that kept some ties to the EU, including retaining membership in the single market, which provides for the free movement of goods, services and people. Many business leaders had also expressed concern about losing unfettered access to the European single market.

But there simply wasn’t any way that Northern Ireland Unionists could ally themselves with Corbyn and they made their decision accordingly. They hope that joining the majority will allow them to have more control over the Brexit negotiations with Europe and help them avoid a situation where Northern Ireland is granted a special status to remain (sort of) in the European Union.

The DUP’s “price” for propping up a new Tory government will include a promise that there will be no separate post-Brexit status for Northern Ireland, the party’s leader in Westminster has confirmed.

Nigel Dodds, re-elected as MP for Belfast North, said that among the DUP’s conditions would be an insistence that there be no deal that would keep the region with one foot still in the EU.

The DUP fears that separate status after Brexit – a key demand of Sinn Féin – would decouple Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

With one eye on the Brexit negotiations that begin in the next 10 days, Dodds said: “There are special circumstances in Northern Ireland and we will try to make sure these are recognised. As regards demands for special status within the European Union, no. Because that would create tariffs and barriers between Northern Ireland and our single biggest market, which is the rest of the United Kingdom.

“While we will focus on the special circumstances, geography and certain industries of Northern Ireland we will be pressing that home very strongly. Special status, however, within the European Union is a nonsense. Dublin doesn’t support it. Brussels doesn’t support it. The member states of the EU would never dream of it because it would open the door to a Pandora’s box of independence movements of all sorts. The only people who mentioned this are Sinn Féin.”

The DUP backed Brexit in last year’s EU referendum and regards as sacrosanct the UK’s decision to leave.

Sinn Féin has argued that because the Northern Ireland electorate voted by 56% to remain within Europe last year and that the region is the only one with a post-Brexit land border with the EU, the area should have special status.

I honestly have no idea how all their conflicting concerns can be resolved to their satisfaction, but I can understand why they want to be sitting in the majority rather than the minority as these decisions are made. They could have chosen to back Labour and sit with them, but instead they gave Theresa May a lifeline.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at