LONDON – The Conservative Party are set to form a hung parliament pact with the Democratic Unionist Party following the general election, which left no party with a majority.
On Thursday, Theresa May will meet with all Northern Ireland parties, including Sinn Fein to discuss what her government’s deal with the DUP will mean for the province.
The proposed deal has caused controversy as it would put at risk the balance of power and peace process in Northern Ireland, where politics is often split along sectarian lines.
She has already faced calls from former Conservative prime minister John Major to drop the plans, because it could risk violence breaking out in the province.
Major played a large role in the peace process which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement.
So what was the Good Friday Agreement and how does it come into all this? Here’s everything you need to know about it and why it matters now.
Between the late 1960s and 1998 Northern Ireland was engulfed by a conflict known as ‘The Troubles’, which was fought largely on nationalist grounds between republican paramilitary groups such as the Provisionial Irish Republican Army and the Irish Nationalist Liberation Army; unionist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force; the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary.
This came to an end due to the peace process of the 1990s, which culminated in the ceasefire of the Provisional IRA in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement of 1998.
I’ve heard of the Good Friday Agreement, what is it?
The Good Friday Agreement was a two part treaty, firstly between Northern Ireland’s political parties, and secondly between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. It set up Northern Ireland’s devolved political system and agreed the relationship between all the different parties of the agreement.
It was voted on in referendums both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, won support in both and was implemented in December 1999. The agreement helped create the power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly, where laws have to gain both nationalist and unionist majority support, which largely means Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party or the DUP.
The deal included commitments to the disbanding of paramilitary organisations and the normalisation of security arrangements in the province. It also controversially allowed the early release of prisoners serving sentences for paramilitary related activity.
The Northern Ireland Assembly repeatedly failed to work, with unionists and republicans failing to form governments until the St Andrew’s agreement of 2007, after which the DUP and Sinn Fein formed an executive, with Ian Paisley as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as Deputy Minister. It was an outstanding result, uniting the two factions in power.
Why does it matter now?
As the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont can only work if the unionists and republicans can work together, in this case the DUP and Sinn Fein, any threat to one is likely to result in their refusal to form a government.
Following the Assembly elections earlier this year, the republican faction had a majority for the first time ever, meaning talks between the two sides are more fractious than ever.
Northern Ireland has been without it’s ruling executive since January, when Sinn Fein pulled out over the DUP’s “Cash for Ash” scandal, which triggered assembly elections. Talks are ongoing between the region’s parties so that a full government can be re-established.
Under the Good Friday Agreement The British and Irish governments are required to be “rigorously” impartial in negotiations between Northern Irish parties, and it is this that is put under threat by the probable deal with the DUP.
If talks fail and the devolved government cannot be formed, the responsibility for governing Northern Ireland would be returned to Westminster and the Northern Ireland office, which will be run by a government relying on the DUP for a majority. It is quite messy.
Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s leader in Stormont, has already said “any deal between the Tories and the DUP cannot be allowed to undermine the Good Friday and subsequent agreements.”
O’Neill said the British and Irish governments must “recommit to the word, spirit and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement” in order for the power-sharing agreement to work again.
A spokesperson for the prime minister told Business Insider on Monday “we are absolutely committed to our impartial role.”
Does Brexit have an impact?
The 1998 agreement relied heavily on membership of the European Union, with assumptions made about the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
One of the key parts of the deal was that anyone born in Northern Ireland can be a citizen of Ireland or the UK, or both. How would this work once Brexit happens? Can someone be both an EU citizen and not an EU citizen?
If the UK were to leave the Customs Union, a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be likely, meaning passport checks and an immigration process.
As Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote Brexit means “English nationalists have planted a bomb under the settlement that brought peace to Northern Ireland.”
Wait, what’s the Customs Union?
It is one of the central parts of the EU, which means that goods and services can travel throughout the bloc without tarriffs being levied, and a common external tarriff is levied on goods exiting the union. It is thought the DUP will lobby to stay within the Customs Union, and the hung parliament means a soft Brexit is likelier.
So what happens next?
Conservative negotiations with the DUP are ongoing and will probably end at the beginning of next week. The deal produced will probably be a “confidence and supply” agreement where the DUP will agree to vote with the government on votes of confidence and budgets, propping up the Tory minority government.
Talks will continue in order to try and form an executive for the Northern Ireland Assembly, so the province has a devolved government. The deadline for these to be completed is the 29th June, just a fortnight away.
James Brokenshire, the Conservative Northern Ireland secretary said yesterday “Ultimately, I think the parties understand people voted in the March Assembly elections for a strong voice at Stormont.
“Northern Ireland’s political leaders now have it in their hands to take control and shape a brighter future for everyone in Northern Ireland.”