The UK General Election And Its Effect On Regional Stability

“Strong and stable leadership” was UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s promise when she announced on May 18th that she was calling a ‘snap’ general election. Securing her own mandate for Brexit was the justification. Yet having alienated the Conservative core with what was soon branded the “dementia tax,” facing criticism on police cuts in the wake of terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, and having chosen not to participate in a televised leaders’ debate, May failed to secure her predicted landslide. Left only with the option of an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to prop up her minority government, the greatest price of strengthening her hand has been, ironically, instability in Northern Ireland.

The DUP has agreed to a “confidence and supply” deal. Notably, this is not a formal coalition, so the DUP has the power to give the Government a difficult time carrying out its regular business, should it so wish. For instance, as highlighted by George Osborne, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, averting the imposition of a ‘hard’ border with the Republic of Ireland is likely to be non-negotiable for the DUP, a stance which is fundamentally incompatible with May’s rhetoric that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Given the centrality of Brexit negotiations to her campaign, the DUP’s hold over the Government is clear.

Though the vast majority of DUP demands are economic, this influence has serious potential to disrupt the peace in Northern Ireland. In the not so distant past, the Troubles between 1968 and 1998 killed 3,600 and injured 40,000. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) states that the UK Government must be ‘rigorously impartial’ in its dealings with the unionist and nationalist communities. Gerry Adams, leader of the Northern Irish opposition party Sinn Fein, claimed on Thursday that May was breaching the GFA directly. His party could still boycott talks to reach a fresh power-sharing agreement in Stormont, the deadline for which had been the end of this month.

Former Prime Minister John Major has also raised concerns about the resurrection of grassroots violence. He warned BBC Radio, “The last thing anybody wishes to see is one or other of the communities so aggrieved that the hard men, who are still there lurking in the corners of the communities, decide that they wish to return to some form of violence.” Paramilitary groups may be emboldened further by the DUP’s backing by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), which murdered a man in broad daylight just a few weeks ago, though the DUP claims not to have sought its support in the election actively. Politically as well as in the streets, the future of Northern Ireland looks far from stable.

In the longer term, the impact of restoring the Conservatives to government is the opportunity cost of Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat. His views on conflict and security echo those of the Organization for World Peace (OWP) closely. Conspicuously, no mention of foreign policy (with the exception of Brexit) was made in the Conservative manifesto. By contrast, in a speech to Chatham House that foreshadowed the Labour party’s offering, Corbyn stated that “We believe passionately that human rights and justice should drive our foreign policy… Because security is not only about direct military defence, it’s about conflict resolution and prevention, underpinned by strong diplomacy.” Labour pledged increased spending on human rights advisers in embassies worldwide – cut by the Conservatives – as well as the installation of a Minister for Peace. This was a far cry from the Prime Minister’s response to the London terrorist attacks: “If our human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change the laws so we can do it.”

It may seem that the UK election has simply maintained the status quo. Arguably, Brexit has more impact on regional stability, particularly on refugees who, unsure whether borders will be fortified, are likely to take greater risks to reach British shores. Both major parties, returned to parliamentary dominance, respect the result of the referendum. Nonetheless, having increased their share of seats, the Labour Party is now much better placed to hold the Government to account, including on issues such as the arms trade with Saudi Arabia, which, as a result of this election, has finally been brought into the mainstream debate.

Elizabeth Burden