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The ultra-religious Northern Irish party about to help form a UK government, explained

The 2017 election was a wake-up call for the UK to pay attention to its most religiously divided country.

Leader Of The DUP Arlene Foster Addresses Possibility Of Election Coalition
Leader Of The DUP Arlene Foster Addresses Possibility Of Election Coalition
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Since British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party suffered a shocking loss of seats in the UK’s House of Commons during last Thursday’s election, ceding their overall majority, international attention has turned to the party’s future. May will likely hold on to a Tory government, however precariously, by aligning with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Much of the international coverage of the DUP has focused on the party’s perceived religiosity and how the DUP might move the Conservatives further to the right on social issues. A Change.org petition against the expected agreement — which has as of today garnered almost 725,000 signatures — highlights the party’s track record on abortion and LGBTQ rights, as well as its less formal association with creationist educational policy.

The Evening Standard raised the possibility that DUP influence might lead to abortion restrictions within mainland UK; the Telegraph’s “Seven Things You Didn’t Know About the DUP” focused almost exclusively on the party’s religiously motivated, right-wing social policy, including the party’s position on the death penalty and climate change. British commentator Matthew D’Ancona even characterized the DUP as a “group of homophobes, zealots and creationists” in the New York Times.

All of these issues are, of course, legitimate concerns for the Conservative Party going forward. But reducing the significance of the DUP to a “right-wing religious party,” or comparing it to the American religious right, elides the complexity of religion and identity in Northern Ireland. Doing so overlooks how the DUP’s presence in government, especially with Northern Ireland’s resistance to Brexit, could prove even more catastrophic, threatening a delicate — and only recently won — peace in the region.

To understand the UK elections’ impact, look to Belfast, not London

To understand the significance of the DUP today, it’s vital to understand the wider context of Catholic-Protestant relationships in Northern Ireland.

The typically wealthier Protestants — descendants of settlers sent by the British keep watch over the local Irish population — often functioned as an uneasy bridge between the two islands. After a century of political debate — and sometimes violence — about the “Irish question” of national self-governance in 1922, the twenty-six southern counties formed the Irish Free State. The northern six opted to remain part of Great Britain, albeit with a devolved government, creating what is now known as Northern Ireland.

Life in Northern Ireland operated on strict sectarian lines. While no formal system of segregation was ever in place, informal and institutional bias in housing and employment effectively made Catholics second-class citizens. Certain professions, including the civil service and other “middle-class” jobs, were all but exclusively Protestant.

The prevalence and influence of the Orange Order — a Protestant fraternity charged with resisting “by all lawful means the ascendancy of the [Catholic] Church of Rome” — at the upper echelons of political society only intensified these tensions; nearly every major Protestant political figure of the early and mid-20th century was a member. Meanwhile, Catholics, many of whom identified with their religious and cultural compatriots in the Republic of Ireland, formed their own similarly insular neighborhoods.

These tensions, which were not only religious in nature but also cultural, social, and economic, led to the decades known as the Troubles, roughly from the late 1960s to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. During this period, occasional sectarian violence gave way to much more regular armed conflict, street violence, and bombing campaigns fought through paramilitary forces like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) among Catholic nationalists and, among Protestants, the Ulster Defense Association (UDA). The lines between paramilitary and “legitimate” political institution weren’t always so easy to draw on either side of the divide. The mainly Protestant Ulster police force was often accused of collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, while several former members of the IRA later became significant players in the Irish nationalist political party Sinn Féin.

It was out of these tensions that the DUP arose. Founded by hardline loyalist and evangelical Protestant minister Ian Paisley in 1971, the party branded itself in opposition to what Paisley saw as the gradual weakening and “selling out” of mainstream Unionist parties in Northern Ireland during attempts at a peace process. The party has continually campaigned against nearly every attempt at a political agreement between Catholic and Protestant factions: opposing the 1974 Sunningdale Agreement and 1985’s Anglo-Irish Agreement. In fact, the DUP was the only major Northern Irish political party to oppose the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the power-sharing agreement widely considered to have put an end to the Troubles.

Though Paisley’s stance softened significantly in later life — he ultimately agreed to a power-sharing deal with Sinn Féin in 2007 — his rhetoric was as incendiary as it was powerful. He famously condemned any “partnership with the IRA men of blood who have slain our loved ones, destroyed our country, burned our churches, tortured our people, and now demand that we should become slaves in a country fit only for nuns’ men and monks’ women to live in.” His language, though extreme, represents the sentiments of many in Northern Ireland at the time, on both sides of the political spectrum, for whom religious imagery and evocations of past violence were closely intertwined.

While the days of the Troubles may be over, tensions have not quite ended. The 2005 murder of local Belfast Protestant Robert McCartney, allegedly by members of the IRA, after an argument in a Belfast bar made international headlines as much as for the seemingly extensive cover-up as for the incident itself; only last month, DUP leader Arlene Foster faced questions about her own involvement with paramilitary groups after a man was killed in a Carrickfergus parking lot over an internal UDA feud.

Milltown Cemetery
Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, where several IRA members are buried.

It’s about identity, not theology

It’s important to highlight that the religious conflict there has much less to do with any form of concrete theology (whether it’s the DUP’s well-known views on abortion, LGBTQ rights, or creation) than it does with something deeper: a sense of group identity that permeates all aspects of daily life in Northern Ireland.

As late as this year, studies emerged showing almost-complete geographic and educational separation of Catholic and Protestant populations in Northern Ireland. Despite a relative absence of overt bias, Northern Ireland is in many ways a segregated state. Or as Vinny, a Catholic from Belfast puts it in an interview with Claire Mitchell, author of Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland: Boundaries of Belonging: “Politics and religion are so confused [here] … someone who plays rugby or hockey by nature is stereotyped as a Protestant … whereas someone who plays Gaelic [football] is a Catholic.”

The DUP’s presence in the UK government, therefore, represents more than just the presence of a religious or even right-leaning political party in Westminster. It also represents the singular presence at the highest levels of UK government of a political party deeply associated with one side of a historically volatile, and violent, religious conflict.

That the Good Friday Agreement requires the British government to be totally impartial in matters of Northern Irish government doesn’t make anything easier: Even if Prime Minister May avoids forming a formal coalition in favor of a more fluid “confidence and supply” deal, the combative symbolism of an avowedly anti-Catholic party with such close ties to the ruling party in Westminster is impossible to overlook. Already, some of the DUP and its allies’ early demands are thoroughly sectarian in nature: Members of Orange Order, with its historic ties to the DUP, are demanding that May reverse a ban on a loyalist march associated with paramilitary violence.

All this would be bad enough against a more stable political backdrop. But local controversies over Arlene Foster’s involvement in a mismanaged green heating scheme — and the subsequent collapse of power sharing at Northern Ireland’s devolved-government seat of Stormont — have already destabilized the delicate balance of power in the region.

Worse, the looming specter of Brexit — and the questions it raises about borders (including, vitally, the Northern Irish-Irish border) and identity — threatens to make the Conservative-DUP coalition disastrous. Writing a full year ago, the New Statesman’s Kevin Meagher warned that Brexit, which was massively disfavored by Northern Irish voters, was a political tinderbox waiting to ignite in Northern Ireland, because it could bring calls for Northern Irish reunification with its southern (and European) neighbor back into the spotlight.

The optics of the DUP propping up a pro-Brexit, Conservative government only add fuel to the fire. As Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell points out in a Guardian op-ed: “If the British government cannot play the role of mediator ... [f]ailure to reach agreement will catapult Northern Ireland into a serious crisis and back on to our front pages, where it has been happily absent for 20 years.” On Tuesday, even former Conservative Prime Minister John Major weighed in, telling the BBC that peace in Northern Ireland “should not be regarded as a given” and cautioning May against exacerbating division in the region.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t also watch the election’s effect on social issues across the UK. It’s true that Northern Ireland has traditionally been more conservative on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide. For instance, it’s the only place in the UK where abortion access is heavily restricted — a policy supported by both the DUP and Sinn Féin — and where same-sex marriage is still illegal.

Still, says independent social science researcher Caitlyn Schwartz, renewed attention to the religious landscape of Northern Ireland might have an unintended upside: “Outside Northern Ireland, there's often this assumption that when Northern Irish values and policies are not socially progressive, Catholicism is at the root of it,” she says. “The religious divide doesn't manifest itself that way in 2017.

Sinn Féin has gradually rebranded itself as a socially progressive party, promoting equal marriage, for example, in stark contrast to the DUP. Look for a silver lining in what is quite an ominous cloud — the attention the coalition has drawn to the DUP could make many in Britain reconsider their assumptions about the interplay between religion and politics in Northern Ireland.” But if that interplay turns violent, the implications for the United Kingdom could be disastrous.

It might seem premature, if not alarmist, to talk about a resurgence of violence in Northern Ireland. But let’s not forget that in 1936, well before the start of the Troubles, historian Edmund Curtis concluded that questions of politics and religion in Northern Ireland had been “dissolved in the light of modern reasonableness.” Unfortunately for Theresa May — and the United Kingdom as a whole — violence is no less modern.

Correction: the original article misstated the number of counties in the Irish Free State. It is 26.

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