History / Politics

Doing deals with Ulstermen

I am sure poor Peel ought to be blessed by all Catholics for the many and noble ways in which he stands forth to protect and do good for poor Ireland. But the bigotry, the wicked and blind passion it brings forth is quite dreadful, and I blush for Protestantism.
Letter from Queen Victoria to Leopold I, King of the Belgians, 15 April 1845, referring to the controversy over the Maynooth Grant

In the end, you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it’s not the way to run a modern, sophisticated society.
Kenneth Clarke (2010)

Yep, Ireland has caused the odd problem to England and Great Britain over the centuries (albeit nothing compared to those exported the other way). Now, after a general election in which the Labour leader’s Republican sympathies were mentioned once or twice, Theresa May’s likely deal with the Democratic Unionist Party has brought back into focus a more recent consequence of the Irish question: the use of their local parties to prop up UK governments lacking a majority.

Of course in one way it makes sense. It avoids the need to strike a deal with a party with whom the prospective government is in direct competition – especially if the most likely alternative have very recently had their fingers burnt. But the precedents are far from strong and stable especially at times, like now, when there are constitutional headaches across the Irish Sea.

It was only when the secret ballot was brought in after 1872 that a separate Irish party began to win seats at British elections, possibly as nationalist tenants no longer needed fear eviction by landlords for voting the wrong way. As all of Ireland was still in the United Kingdom, they provided 101 of the 652 seats, and as the Home Rule League won 60 at the first opportunity in 1874, it was no surprise that they soon found themselves holding the balance of power.

That was in the third post-secret ballot election of 1885, when the Liberals fell 17 seats short and the 86 from the Irish Parliamentary party held the balance. It was not a good omen for the future: William Gladstone opted to introduce a home rule bill which promptly split his party and within months a further election produced a Conservative landslide.

By now the Irish question was a central feature of British political life and remained so up to home rule in 1920, after which 13 seats (from the six counties of Ulster) were all that remained of Irish representation in the Commons, and these were invariably won by the Unionists, then very much part of the Conservative Party. It was not until that alliance fell apart in the 1970s that we came to the first example of the current pretty pass.

Much was turmoil in the time of the Edward Heath government, and that included the Conservative and Unionist Party. The Ulster Unionist MPs resigned the Tory whip over the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement on power-sharing, and this was to scupper Heath’s attempts to form a majority the following year after the February 1974 election, when the Tories ended up four seats behind Labour. The support of the 11 members of the United Ulster Council would have been pretty useful to the Conservatives, but an attempt by Heath to offer the whip to its seven Ulster Unionist MPs foundered on their insistence that Ian Paisley of the DUP be included.

So in came Harold Wilson and by the end of the year Labour had a slim majority, which disappeared by the time James Callaghan took charge. After the Lib-Lab Pact expired, and Callaghan opted against an autumn 1978 election (when did calling an early election harm anyone, eh?), the government only survived a December no-confidence vote after a deal with the Ulster Unionists (including one Enoch Powell) to give Northern Ireland extra parliamentary seats.

This was the sign of things to come. Whereas the descendants of the Home Rule League in the era before Home Rule were mainly interested in using their leverage to achieve an Irish parliament, on the occasions when Northern Irish Unionists held the balance of power they obviously weren’t looking to achieve constitutional upheaval, what with them being Unionists and therefore on the whole happy with the Union. Rather, they were motivated by more specific deals – such as getting more seats for Northern Ireland, which they were likely to win themselves, or benefits more akin to what the Americans would call pork barrel.

A good example was the March 1979 confidence vote. With the Scottish Nationalists as well as the Liberals lining up against the government, Northern Irish votes were Labour’s last hope of surviving through to the summer or autumn. Naturally they turned to the Unionists again, and discussed a gas pipeline under the Irish Sea, only for Callaghan to veto the whole thing. ‘His government was not up for auction,’ the responsible whip Roy Hattersley remembered. John Smith fumed: ‘He’s lost his bottle.’ Powell said on television later that night: ‘They could have done it. They could have had half of the Unionist Party with them. But they chose not to do so.’

There was still another hope – the nationalist MPs Frank Maguire and Gerry Fitt. But to no avail. Both had flown to London but, Hattersley wrote: ‘[According to] Bernard Donoughue, the head of the prime minister’s policy unit, Maguire was near to tears. But his wife and two “heavies” who had travelled with him from Ireland “forbade him to vote”,’ in a large part over the very issue that had kept the government alive in 1978: the extra seats for Ulster (and therefore Unionists).

Fitt, founder of the SDLP, was usually a reliable Labour supporter and once said: ‘I, for one, have never been a nationalist to the total exclusion of my socialist ideals.’ But he had become increasingly furious with Northern Ireland secretary Roy Mason. ‘He’s an anti-Irish wee git,’ was Fitt’s view. Thus (along with his personal affront at the teetotal Callaghan thinking the offer of gin would win over the very much not teetotal Fitt) he voted against the government, bringing them down by a vote, even as he vowed to campaign for their re-election.

There followed more than a decade of comfortable Conservative majorities, but after 1992 things were tighter and the then prime minister John Major was forced to look Ulster-ward. In 1993, with the Maastricht Treaty hanging in the balance, the UUP reportedly only provided the decisive votes after a £10m electricity deal for Northern Ireland (if only they’d had that gas pipeline).

Later, once by-election losses had effectively wiped out the Tory majority in 1996, the Unionists were more than keen to prop up a weak Conservative administration rather than force them out to be replaced by a likely Labour landslide from which no concessions could be extracted. With the ongoing peace process at a delicate stage, and constitutional concerns even more vital than they had been in the late 1970s, the UUP could use their leverage to ensure Sinn Fein were kept out of talks so long as the IRA refused to decommission its weapons, and they could also push for the assembly the Unionists wanted.

Certainly, the nationalists and republicans were suspicious that the need for Unionist votes was colouring the UK government’s stance in the ongoing peace talks. And once Tony Blair came in with his huge majority, reaching a deal in Northern Ireland became much easier.

In the post-Blair era, landslides seem to be a distant memory, but hitherto the Conservatives have avoided relying too heavily on the Unionists (even though David Cameron did temporarily restore the parties’ links). Yet now, with her majority gone and no chance of Liberal Democrat support, Theresa May has turned to the Unionists again – this time to the DUP, whom Heath deemed beyond the pale in 1974.

Whether any deal focuses on constitutional matters (relating to Brexit or Stormont), or more prosaic matters (such as a Northern Irish corporation tax cut) that might favour the DUP’s backyard in these austere times, Arlene Foster and her fellow Paisleyites have much to gain, especially as May will surely be less than keen to rush to the country again any time soon.

But, even if controversies over the DUP’s more socially conservative stances can be avoided, the experience of previous British governments indicates that depending on Ulster parties is not the recipe for a quiet life. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn should be grateful that abstentionism means there is no chance of him having to turn to his old chums in Sinn Féin.

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