Eamon Sweeney RFÉ 10 June 2017

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Martin Galvin speaks to journalist Eamon Sweeney via telephone from Doire who provides analysis of the results of the recent general election in the United Kingdom. (begins time stamp ~ 38:00)

Martin:  And with us on the line we have Doire-based journalist, Eamon Sweeney. Eamon, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann.

Eamon:  Thank you, Martin.

Martin:  Eamon, on today’s Irish News there is a big cartoon on the front page and it has Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and she is on her knees saying: ‘Your Majesty, I wish to form a new government’ and the person that is wearing the crown and that Theresa May is kneeling in front of is Arlene Foster, the head of the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party). 

Cartoon by Ian Knox.
Source: The Irish News

And I’m reading about how Theresa May will be quote unquote ‘in office not in power’, various other things – they’re talking about the DUP wagging the conservative – the tail being – that wags the conservative dog. How did we come to this? Theresa May did not have to call an election. She could have waited. This was supposed to be an election that she thought would bring in a bigger majority, give her a bigger say and now she’s, figuratively speaking, proverbially on her knees in front of the DUP making concessions to get their support. How did that come about? How did it happen?

Eamon:  Well to put it in context: Almost exactly a year ago we had a referendum that was brought about by the previous Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, based on the UK’s status within the European Union (EU) and their desire to either stay or to go. It was as simple as that. He promised an election (inaudible) himself and he didn’t believe, I think – and nobody would believe at that time – that the UK electorate would actually vote in favour of leaving the European Union but that’s exactly what happened. Now the ramifications from that were: Number One, Cameron had to resign. He was replaced by Theresa May as prime minister. She then initiated a process of departure from the European Union which is going to take around two years to complete. In order to push that through she went to the British electorate with the suggestion that there will be an election, I think she called it around two months ago, it happened on Thursday – and it was a gamble which spectacularly backfired for her. She and a lot of others thought the Conservative Party would win a landslide. In fact what happened was that she narrowly scraped by in terms of numerical superiority over the British Labour Party. In order for her to continue in government she has now had to go, basically cap in hand, to the Democratic Unionist Party here in Northern Ireland; they returned ten MPs on Thursday night. Effectively they are now in a massively strong position, the Democratic Unionist Party, because Theresa May has no option but to form some sort of association – it’s not being called a coalition by either the DUP or the Conservative Party at the moment – but she needs them desperately in order to retain power. So what they want basically will be given to them – I would imagine in terms of concessions – and that’s why we’re arriving today at the situation where you have that cartoon on the front of the Irish News. The negotiations behind the scenes are going on straightaway. The Chief Whip of the Conservative Party is actually in Belfast this afternoon negotiating with the DUP. (Negotiating might be a strong term for it – basically the DUP will be telling him what they want from this deal.) And that’s exactly where we are. It’s been a very strange two years in politics in the United Kingdom and in Ireland.

Martin:  And Theresa May, we should explain: The British system, it’s a parliamentary system as is the Irish system. It’s, for example, in the United States the head of the – the Speaker of the House – is elected separately based on the number of members in the House of Representatives let us say – it’s separately from the president. In Britain and in Ireland the head of the – the prime minister is the person – is like the Speaker of the House. It’s the person who can make up a majority of votes within the House. So Theresa May – she lost her Conservative Party…

Eamon: …Yes….

Martin:  …lost thirteen seats. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn gained thirty seats and they got close enough where Theresa May needed the DUP votes to make a majority to keep her in office. Now, some of the things that people are suggesting or think that they might be asking might include a statute of limitations for British troops for events like Bloody Sunday and other killings, it may be something like a change in the Parades Commission which puts regulations on parading, Loyalist and Unionist parades, it may be no special status in the European Community which would certainly affect you in Doire and other areas affected and make Brexit, the effects of it, much worse. What are some of the other things that we might expect the Democratic Unionist Party to demand and get from Theresa May in order to keep her in power?

Eamon:  Well, what you’ve just said I would imagine are the fundamentals of what they would desire to have on their list of demands. Interestingly, the talks to re-start Stormont begin once more first thing on Monday morning. I would imagine what’s happening this afternoon, with the Conservative Party representatives and the DUP, is that they are putting their demands along those very lines that you suggested to the Conservative Party. The ramifications of the coalition with the Conservative Party in the UK and the DUP for Northern Ireland could be huge. It could have serious bearings on whether or not Stormont actually comes back or not. Sinn Féin for example, the second largest party, as you know, in The North, withdrew from Stormont quite some months ago now and Martin McGuinness, before his death, actually triggered the fall of that. The fundamental, one of the fundamental parts of trying to get a lasting agreement at Stormont is, of course – you’re quite right, dealing with the killings. Nationalists, of course, want everybody, including state killers, brought to bear. Unionists say there’s a disproportionate amount of concentration on bringing prosecutions or attempted prosecutions against British soldiers, for example, who killed people whilst they were on service here. And it has to be said neither of those scenarios effectively help the victims in any way – either on the Unionist or the Nationalist side. So it’s been real turmoil for all the families involved on all sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland and it has been a real, real stumbling block between the DUP and Sinn Féin as to how to proceed.

If, I would imagine, that the DUP demands that the statute of limitations be enacted in order to give immunity from prosecution to soldiers, for example, I can’t see Stormont will be resurrected again. I get the sense from Sinn Féin that they’re not overtly concerned whether Stormont actually returns or not at the moment; they have other fish to fry both in Dublin and now they’ve got their seats – of course which they don’t take – at Westminster. They don’t sit inside the chamber because they will not take an oath of allegiance to the British monarch – that’s been a fundamental core principle of Sinn Féin politics for years. But locally in terms of what has happened in terms of Nationalism at this Westminster election, this British UK election, is that the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the SDLP, were effectively wiped out on Thursday night. They had three MPs, one of which was the local MP for Doire, Mark Durkan, and the other was Alasdair McDonnell you know and one again was Margaret Ritchie – all three of these personalities were former leaders of the SDLP.

So for the first time in many centuries, I suppose, the voice of Irish Nationalism has no representation at Westminster whatsoever in terms of people actually going into the chamber. Whilst there are seven Sinn Féin MPs elected to the British parliament as of Thursday night they don’t sit inside the chamber. So back and forward you have the argument there about abstentionism to Westminster – they say they won’t. In order for them basically to try and offset the hard Brexit that is being sought by Theresa May and offset the very serious economic ramifications that it will have for places like Doire and border areas in the North of Ireland – they can’t do so because they won’t go in and take their seats. Now, it didn’t seem to matter to the electorate that that would be the case because their eventual eclipse of the SDLP is now finalised – it’s complete. The SDLP – where they go from here, nobody actually knows. Will the SDLP, for example, ever bother contesting another election at Westminster? It remains to be seen because they’ve gone! You will vividly remember twenty-odd years ago, Martin, when the SDLP representatives at senior levels would have quite arrogantly said that Sinn Féin would never, ever eclipse them electorally and they have. They’ve totally decimated them in terms of Nationalist representation. It’s a strange one. For Doire itself and people, your listenership in New York, will would know very well the character of John Hume and his regular visits and just not to Washington (inaudible) has the electoral decline in the SDLP has been huge.

Martin:  Eamon, the peace process, one of the first steps in it was a statement by a British minister that the British government had no selfish or strategic interest in the North of Ireland and that was supposed to signal that the British government was going to be neutral and that by coming to a resolution, by coming, you know working in Stormont itself, you could have neutrality, you could have Sinn Féin working with the DUP or working with Unionist representatives gradually doing away with some of the injustices of British rule, gradually getting to a point where you could get to a united Ireland. This whole structure in which Theresa May is, figuratively speaking, kneeling to Arlene Foster to keep her in power, that is going to be exactly the opposite. You’re going to have Theresa May propping up, favouring, trying to use/introduce legislation which helps the DUP which does not work towards a united Ireland. Wouldn’t that be the case?

Eamon:  Well the statement all those years ago, I think it was (former Northern Ireland Secretary of State) Patrick Mayhew who made that, I always regarded that as something to coax Republicans in from the cold in order to take part in negotiations and help Sinn Féin convince the IRA, for example, that the peaceful, democratic route was the one to take. If anybody actually believes that the British don’t have any selfish or strategic motives for remaining in Ireland then they’re crazy. That’s been borne out by the actions of the British government since that statement was made all those years ago in terms of the open and transparent methods that they suggested have never taken place – especially with the examination or looking at the actions of their own British troops in Ireland so I always thought that was much more of a soundbite than a reality, as a matter of fact. But where we go from here? I mean it’s – the departure from the EU for Britain has brought a lot of things sharply into focus especially in Ireland – especially in the North of Ireland. We’ve had to take a step back and watch basically. The UK, as it was, in terms of a union between Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales is crumbling; it is dissolving around them. The Scots, for example, are making great strides again towards demanding another referendum for independence which eventually will be successful. I mean it’s a matter of keeping going back there until the matter is resolved – in terms of Scotland. England, I think, is a place largely defined at the beginning of the evolution by Tony Blair all those years ago where he was only interested in basically creating a separated England for the square mile in London in terms of economics. He didn’t want responsibility in fact for Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales – at all. All he wanted to do was keep them in terms of resources and taxation and that’s essentially what the three, peripheral Celtic nations mean to England – is to bleed them for more taxation and more money – as much as possible as far as I can see. It will eventually, I mean this British election that took place three days ago it was basically, in all but name, a border referendum in Ireland. It distilled the question about remaining or leaving the United Kingdom for Northern Ireland down into the basic tenet between Nationalists and Unionists yet again. Both those main parties that dominate the political scene in Northern Ireland, ie the DUP and Sinn Féin, are those who have been successful at the British election and that tells you that the argument delineated along those lines still exists the same way as it did thirty years ago but with the absence of a conflict. It hasn’t been resolved. All elections that take place in Northern Ireland (inaudible).

Dublin, as ever, are making great noises about representing Nationalist views in The North. As we both know that has often been a case of lip-service down the decades. The SDLP, for their part, where they go I really don’t know but it’s interesting to note that an old argument from Fianna Fáil, the Nationalist party in Dublin, where once both the SDLP and those in Fianna Fáil’ll want to merge into one party – that’s never happened. There’s now suggestions yet again that come the next local elections in Northern Ireland , which are due in 2019, that Fianna Fáil will cross the border and stand candidates at local level to test the water and that means, if that happens, the SDLP may completely disappear forever because people may opt to give Fianna Fail a vote because they think they will have a say-so therefore in Dublin after that. So it’s all very much up in the air. The likelihood of Theresa May being able to maintain what she kept calling a ‘stable government in Britain’ with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party is negligible. I honestly believe that before the autumn arrives there’ll probably be another general election. I also honestly believe that in the coming months in Belfast at Stormont there will be another assembly election as well. People…

Martin:  Alright, Eamon. Eamon, sorry, we just have to close there. We’re closing off. We do want to thank you. We have a lot of potential elections that’ll have to be covered. And again, that cartoon – just Theresa May bowing down to the Democratic Unionist Party and Arlene Foster – it seems to say it all. Alright, thank you, Eamon, and thank you very much for that analysis. Wish we had more time. (ends time stamp ~ 54:37)