The British Prime Minister’s plan to govern with support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party risks re-opening sectarian divisions in Ireland which diplomatic sources say now puts a question mark over Pope Francis’ planned visit to the country.
Following the UK general election last week, which delivered a hung parliament, Theresa May has said she wants to strike a deal with the DUP, a right-wing Protestant party in favour of union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
But experts say her move threatens Northern Ireland’s peace agreement that requires the British and Irish governments to act as impartial mediators between unionists and Irish republicans in the north, who are mainly Catholic.
Critics point out that if Mrs May requires the DUP’s support to govern in Westminster then she will be compromised in her role as an “honest broker,” with mediation sorely Northern Ireland given its parliamentary assembly is suspended due to disputes between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the republican party.
In a sign of rising tensions Enda Kenny, the Irish Prime Minister, phoned Mrs May yesterday to express his concern over her alliance with the DUP and that it could jeopardise the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to the north.
Known as “The Troubles’, sectarian disputes in Northern Ireland have strong religious undertones with Catholic and Protestant communities set against each other. It saw decades of violence, terrorism and atrocities committed by both sides including by the UK security forces.
For its part, the DUP has been the driving political force for Protestant unionists. It was founded by the Reverend Dr Ian Paisley who described the Pope as “the anti-christ” and once interrupted John Paul II’s 1988 speech to the European parliament.
Long running tensions between Catholics and Protestants meant that when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 he was unable to travel north of the border.
In August of next year, however, Pope Francis plans to be in Dublin for the World Meeting of Families and it is believed he wants to travel to Northern Ireland. This would allow him to highlight has largely been a successful peace process that chimes with the aims of his papacy.
But he risks flying into a highly polarised political situation in Ireland which could see two jurisdictions at loggerheads. On the one hand the British government and the DUP in the north, and on the other Irish government which may need Sinn Féin’s to govern in the south.
Tensions in the north have already been exacerbated by Brexit, a decision raises the possibility of a hard border between Ireland – part of the European Union – and Northern Ireland which will be leaving the bloc along with the rest of the United Kingdom. A re-imposition of an old border hails back to the highly contested partition of Ireland in 1921 and which was only meant as a temporary measure. For its part, the DUP had campaigned in favour of Brexit while the late Dr. Ian Paisley saw the EU was a plot to allow the Pope to dominate Europe.
To make matters worse, Francis will be visiting Ireland during August, the traditional marching season of Protestant groups where victories over Catholics are celebrated.