The last refuge for desperate Tories

Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party won the most seats in Britain's election, but lost its majority in parliament. To cling to power, the Tories are seeking a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Connor Kelly explains what May's new best friends really stand for, in an article written for the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

A mural in Belfast celebrates Ulster loyalist paramilitary groups  (Borja García de Sola Fernández | flickr)A mural in Belfast celebrates Ulster loyalist paramilitary groups (Borja García de Sola Fernández | flickr)

THE DEMOCRATIC Unionist Party (DUP) is the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland (NI). Led by the thoroughly corrupt and devious Arlene Foster, it is a deeply sectarian party that, when not stirring up hatred against Catholics and republicans, vilifies gays, women, Muslims and the poor. The party maintains links with the Free Presbyterian Church (a Bible literalist fundamentalist church founded by former DUP leader Ian Paisley) and the Protestant fundamentalist pressure group, the Caleb foundation. On the political spectrum, they would be situated on the far right--probably significantly to the right of even the UK Independence Party. The Tea Party movement in the U.S. is a useful, if not entirely accurate, analogue.

The DUP operates on a cross-class basis, drawing support from working-class Protestants, as well as a significant middle-class and wealthy rural constituency. This unholy alliance is cemented through a sectarian hatred of republicans, nationalists and Catholics, and whipping up the fear that Ulster Protestants are under constant threat of being betrayed to Irish unification--a northern Irish version of the stab in the back myth.

Founded in 1971 by the Protestant supremacist preacher Rev. Ian Kyle Paisley as the successor to his Protestant Unionist Party, formed five years before, the DUP was a radically sectarian outfit from the get-go. Paisley was a right-wing bigot, a fundamentalist Christian and a conspiracy monger who believed that the Northern Ireland civil rights movement was merely a front for the IRA and/or communists, and part of an international conspiracy led by the antichrist (the Pope). He saw official unionism's concessions to the movement as a betrayal of Ulster Protestantism. After Bloody Sunday, as Ireland descended into war, the DUP maintained close links with armed Loyalist death squads for the remainder of the Troubles and up to the present day.

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ALTHOUGH THE DUP traces its roots back to the signing of Carson's Ulster Covenant in 1912 and the foundation of loyalism in the North, its particular brand of Christian fundamentalist loyalism has some unusual esoteric roots. In the mid- to late 1960s, Protestants dominated Catholics in the North in all areas. Catholics were treated like second-class citizens, and unionist control was cemented by vote rigging, gerrymandering and various violent state apparatuses. Various groups of activists in Northern Ireland, inspired by the American civil rights movement, began actions and demonstrations demanding rights for the Catholic minority in the North (one person one vote, end gerrymandering, housing rights, etc.). Protestant supremacists in the North saw this movement as an existential threat and began to mobilize a reaction.

To give a flavor of the milieu out of which the DUP originated, it may be useful to consider TARA. In the late 1960s, a group of what can only be described as blood-and-soil national fascists calling themselves TARA grew up as a response from hard-line loyalists to the civil rights movement.

TARA was militantly anti-Catholic; it believed that Ulster Protestants were descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel and that Ulster Scots had an ancient and legitimate right to the province. Unlike other loyalist groupings, they utilized Celtic symbolism--hence the name TARA: Tara was the ancient seat of the high kingship of Ireland.

As well as spreading conspiracy theories and crackpot histories, it was closely associated for a time with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), one of the main loyalist paramilitary groups in Ireland--the UVF encouraged its membership to also become members of TARA. TARA was supported by Paisley, and he may have been a member (TARA were vocal supporters of Paisley). TARA's founder William McGrath was, in addition to being a pseudo-occultist lunatic, a child-rapist who was later convicted of running a child-sex ring out of the Kincora boy's home in Antrim. (There is also good reason to believe he was an agent of MI5, and that British intelligence possibly knew about the abuse and allowed it to continue in order to "trap" new agents). McGrath's career in Loyalism ended in disgrace and four years in prison, but that of his erstwhile Ulster Israelite ally Paisley was just beginning.

As the civil rights movement gained momentum, there was a backlash from Protestants committed to defending their interests. British troops were introduced to the streets in 1969 in response to a radical uprising in the Bogside of Derry. The Provisional IRA was formed that year as a response to the burning out of Catholic homes in Belfast--IRA members dissatisfied with the official leadership formed a hasty defense of Catholic areas.

With British troops on the streets as a legitimate target for the new IRA, and sectarian violence rampant, Paisley and his comrades declared that they had been proved right--the civil rights movement was an IRA front and the very notion of a Protestant Ulster was under threat.

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THE DUP came into its own as a force in 1973, after the signing of the Sunningdale agreement--an attempt at a power-sharing agreement that was not unlike the later Good Friday agreement. The agreement would see power-sharing between the Nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and the representatives of official unionism--the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Paisley and his DUP were virulently opposed to the agreement which they saw as an unnecessary compromise with Catholic Nationalists, which would threaten the privileged (and divinely sanctioned) position of Ulster Protestants and pave the way to a reunified Ireland: "Dublin is just a Sunningdale away." The DUP along with other unionists and loyalists formed the United Ulster Unionist Council to coordinate their opposition. This worked in tandem with the loyalist political formations and paramilitary death squads that formed the Ulster Worker's Council (UWC) and the Ulster Army Council (UAC) to organize Protestant workers to oppose the agreement and stir up sectarian hatred.

This culminated in the UWC strike of 1974--a reactionary workers' strike that lasted for a fortnight and succeeded in killing the Sunningdale Agreement. The strike essentially brought Northern Ireland to a halt, and loyalist gangs stirred up violence against Catholics throughout. On day three of the strike, loyalists detonated four car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 33 civilians. The UWC Strike cemented Paisley and the DUP's role as a force to be reckoned with.

Throughout the Troubles, Paisley and the DUP lurched from one holy crusade to another. From the campaign against the Anglo-Irish agreement to the use of the slogan "Save Ulster from Sodomy," you could guarantee that the most reactionary political actions had this Antrim Fred Phelps at their center.

The DUP opposed every concession to the political desires of Irish Catholics for the rest of the war, up to and including the Good Friday Agreement--though they had no qualms about participating in the Stormont assembly afterwards.

As many revolutionary socialists at the time warned, the GFA did not "put to rest" the Irish question and merely institutionalized sectarianism in Northern Ireland on an official political level, leading to the most hard-line forces of each "community" becoming their official representatives--Sinn Fein and the DUP.

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THERE HAS been much shared on social media platforms over the last few days about the DUP's links with loyalist terror gangs in the North. The DUP remained on mostly cordial relations with loyalist paramilitaries throughout the troubles--from TARA to the present day, though they have always kept themselves at a safer distance than other groups formally linked to paramilitaries, such as the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), which operated as the "political wing" of the UVF.

Paisley's attempts to create his own paramilitary forces were rather pathetic. In 1981, he formed the Third Force and was pivotal in its successor group, the Ulster Resistance. These were protestant militias modeled on Carson's original UVF. Although their mass rallies might have conjured up images of the KKK in America, the groups were largely ineffective as fighting forces and essentially served as live-action role-playing for the DUP leadership to demonstrate their commitment to the cause of Ulster Protestantism. Paisley was content enough to stir up loyalist gangs to violence and quickly distance himself from them when it was politically expedient. (Ulster Resistance was, however, engaged with other paramilitary groups in criminal activity, such as the importation of arms from Lebanon in collaboration with the UVF and the UDA.)

The closest to military activity Peter Robinson ever got was to lead a merry band of loyalists in an "incursion" of the village of Clontibret in Monaghan, south of the border. They went on a rampage destroying property and conquered the local Garda hut. Robbo was deputy leader at the time. He later went on to become First Minister of Northern Ireland.

We cannot examine any political support the DUP gave to loyalist death squads without also looking at the direct military and intelligence support that the British state lavished on these groups. Collusion between loyalist groupings and the RUC is, at this point, well known. But British Intelligence, military and otherwise, also aided and abetted--and sometimes organized--atrocities committed by people who have been described by former Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan as "serial killers."

If the DUP saw the death squads as "counterterrorists," then so did the British state--the Tory Party arguably has overseen more concrete "links with terrorism" in Northern Ireland than the DUP ever have. The scale of collusion and agent-running in Northern Ireland was massive, with some groups such as the LVF (Loyalist Volunteer Force) being described as "wholly and subsidiary owned" by British state forces. So when Theresa May gallingly accuses Jeremy Corbyn of being soft on the IRA, we should remember that her own party oversaw the arming and support of fascist death squads in Ulster that killed hundreds of civilians. These groups still exist, are still armed and have, in some places, total control of working-class communities.

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THE DUP have been in power in Northern Ireland since 2007 in a power-sharing coalition with Sinn Fein (SF). They, along with SF have overseen the implementation of Tory austerity in the North, which devastated already impoverished working-class communities across the sectarian divide. They have long opposed LGBT and women's rights--various DUP politicians calling homosexuality "disgusting" and "an abomination to God." They, along with Catholic counterparts, oppose the extension of the 1967 abortion act to Northern Ireland and support the criminalization of women seeking an abortion. This means that if they need an abortion, women must travel to England and pay for it on the NHS. They have consistently blocked the introduction of gay marriage in Northern Ireland using the "petition of concern" mechanism in Stormont--a mechanism which, up until recently, effectively gave the DUP a veto over any progressive social legislation for Northern Ireland.

They are a deeply racist party. The former First Minister Peter Robinson, who can be seen in a video describing death squads as "counterterrorists," supported a Belfast pastor who described Muslims as Satanists. Robinson said he would trust Muslims to "go to the shop" for him, a comment which led to encouraging and humorous anti-racist demonstrations across the North. Paisley himself was a deeply racist man. One Jewish filmmaker who had dealings with Paisley recalls how "He had three nicknames for me--one was 'the Jew', another one was 'my Jewish friend,' and the third one was 'my circumcised friend.'"

That the Tories accuse Labour of being a hotbed of anti-Semitism and then go into coalition with a party founded by and led by this man is rank hypocrisy. These sorts of comments would likely ruin the career of any other leading politician in the UK--but with the DUP, this is standard fare.

Peter Robinson and his wife Iris Robinson have been involved in numerous corruption scandals. Iris Robinson, the party's homophobe-in-chief, was brought down by a scandal that began public revelations about her affair with a (barely legal) young man. It was later revealed that she had been siphoning off public money in his direction. Peter Robinson has been implicated in the NAMA properties scandal (see "Namagate")--allegedly, he stood to benefit $9.5 million in fixer's fees upon completion to the deal. The current leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, is also tarnished by numerous corruption scandals, from claiming expenses for disused buildings in her constituency to overseeing the Renewable Heating scheme that resulted in the recent "Cash for Ash" scandal that brought down the NI Assembly. Refusing to resign, she caused Northern Ireland to fall under yet another period of stalemate and direct rule. Now, she holds the levers of power in Westminster. This is a party so steeped in corruption that they make the Westminster expense scandal look tame by comparison. Along with their regressive social policies, they will undoubtedly try to use their new position with the Tories to further line their own pockets through more dodgy deals and illegal transactions.

Everyone on the left in Britain must now mobilize against the new coalition at Westminster (regardless of the actual arrangement). In Liverpool last week, fascists in the EDL attempted to march (they were crushed by anti-fascist mobilization). One of the flags they brandished was that of the UVF. Ulster loyalism has long had links with fascist groups in Britain--now their bigoted political representatives are in bed with Theresa May. This can only embolden right-wing and far-right elements in Britain and NI. Every anti-fascist group and anti-racist group in Britain should now mobilize against this unholy alliance.

The Tory government is content to throw the GFA and the people of Northern Ireland under the bus in order to cling to power. That one NI party now holds the balance of power in Westminster makes a laughingstock of the very idea of power-sharing in the North. The Irish Question is now firmly back on the table, and a critical examination of the "Peace Process" is long overdue.

Even if--it seems fairly likely--we see a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn in the near future, the radical left must take an independent socialist position on Ireland. That position should be the same one that we have been arguing for the last 100 years--not power-sharing in a puppet state in the six counties, but a 32-county socialist republic. If ever there was a time for the left to make these arguments, this is it.

First published at rs21.