A Conservative-DUP deal and human rights

The British public is paying unusual attention to Northern Ireland at the present time. Not thank goodness because of any new atrocity, nor because our peace process has hit another bump in the rocky road to a new society. There seems to be a kind of horrified fascination as elements of the media discover the rather unattractive answer to the question “Just who are the DUP?”

This interest arises of course because the minority Conservative government is seeking a “confidence and supply” agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party’s ten MPs which would enable it to get the Queen’s Speech and budgets through the House of Commons. So the spotlight is on the DUP’s extreme social conservatism and, in some of the liberal media at least, its dalliance with monied elements of the “alt-right” during the referendum campaign. 

From a human rights perspective these negotiations are problematic for a number of reasons. Chief amongst them is the perceived threat to the peace process. There is just a week left before the legal deadline for the formation of a new Executive at Stormont. Sinn Fein and the other parties complain that the DUP have, literally, not turned up to agreed negotiation meetings and have not taken a serious attitude to re-establishing the institutions. But there will be a more general effect on the process if a deal is done.

Nationalists will view the prospect of the dominant unionist party allying with, and having significant influence over, all the power of the UK state as a major de-stabilising factor. Many nationalists were already convinced that the pre-election May government were in close ideological alliance with the DUP and operated in tacit collaboration. On certain issues, key to the peace process, there can be no doubt that UK Ministers, as well as important Conservative politicians, were at one with the DUP. These include the national security veto on information to be given to victims’ families after legacy investigations, attacks on lawyers and law officers engaged in legacy work and the demand for amnesty for British soldiers who might be accused of murder. More generally, the explicit hostility to human rights demonstrated by elements of the previous UK Government was shared by the DUP. 

The DUP itself has never accepted the Belfast Good Friday Agreement as such, even though later agreements led it to participate in the institutions. This participation has, however, had the effect of blocking progress on a number of social issues, such as equal marriage and reproductive rights, a refusal to countenance the implementation of commitments in the agreements such as a Bill of Rights, a Single Equality Act and an Irish Language Act and a series of actions by individual DUP ministers that ignore equality regulations and seem designed to appeal only to elements of their own constituency. There is also the unresolved issue of the Renewable Heating Initiative (a botched scheme that could lead to the loss of up to £500m of public money), the role of the current DUP leader in it and whether she could be First Minister while the inquiry into the affair is going on. An alliance with a Conservative government would bolster the DUP position on all these matters and make the re-establishment of the institutions highly unlikely. 

If that means a period of Direct Rule, the position would be even worse. British ministers would be making decisions but heavily influenced by the DUP. It would be inevitable that any decision would be proofed by how attractive or not it would be to the DUP. Tory ministers, like the current Secretary of State, may protest that they would act independently but the political realities and the actual power relationships would mean that the DUP had a disproportionate influence. This partly fulfils the DUP dream of majority rule but exercised through the medium of a UK government dependent on their parliamentary support. This is in fundamental contradiction to the peace settlement and would cause a level of instability that would have unknown consequences.

If there is a Tory/DUP deal, those who wish to combat impunity, progress the peace process and uphold human rights principles will have to be particularly vigilant on these issues. In terms of combating impunity, we will reject any one-sided amnesty or “statute of limitations” for British soldiers only. For the past few years we have been working hard to get the Stormont House Agreement implemented. In spite of the UK Government’s ridiculous position on national security, it remains the only practical show in town for dealing with the past – the UK Government should publish and consult on a draft Bill as soon as possible. For the peace process, the optics of the situation will be bad enough; if there is evidence of collusion between the DUP and the UK Government on these matters, faith in the entire settlement as well as the rule of law will be undermined. In current circumstances equality is the underlying human rights principle which must be defended and promoted. Without the rigorous implementation of the equality duty on public authorities, public confidence in government here will rapidly leak away. 

Paradoxically, an open alliance between Conservatives and the DUP may mean that policy will be better scrutinised. Informal, under the counter arrangements are one thing and may be subject to differing interpretation; open, formal agreements can be better judged as to whether they contribute to equality and justice. That will be one of the tasks of CAJ moving forward. 

Brian Gormally is Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ). The CAJ is an independent human rights NGO with cross community membership in Northern Ireland and beyond. It was established in 1981 and campaigns on a broad range of human rights issues. CAJ seeks to secure the highest standards in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland by ensuring that the government complies with its international human rights obligations.