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Opinion Why the Irish question still matters for British politics

Rebecca Graff-McRae holds a PhD in Irish political history from Queen's University Belfast and is a former SSHRC post-doctoral scholar at the University of Alberta.

Hung parliaments make for strange bedfellows – as British Columbians have seen recently in the marriage of convenience between the BC NDP and the Greens. As the political tug-of-war over the B.C. legislature continued last week, votes were being tallied across the United Kingdom – the second general election for the U.K. in two years. Instead of the clear mandate they had anticipated, the ruling Conservatives' failure to command an overall majority has led to their reliance on a handful of MPs from Northern Ireland to retain the balance of power.

The Democratic Unionist Party is staunchly small "c" conservative, dedicated to preserving Northern Ireland's place in the Union at all costs. Rooted in the fiery evangelical Protestantism of founder Reverend Ian Paisley Sr., on social issues the party is more akin to the American far right than its new governmental allies – in both policy and ideology, the DUP is fiercely anti-abortion, anti-marriage equality, anti-immigration and anti-EU, with a sprinkling of climate-change denial and creationism thrown in for good measure.

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Related: In U.K., May faces growing tension over Northern Ireland's fate

The support for Theresa May's minority government offered by DUP leader and Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster is neither surprising nor unconditional. Throughout its history, the unionist movement has hinged its loyalty on the guarantee of a veto over Northern Ireland's constitutional status. The two leaders met Tuesday to agree the terms of a deal – termed a "confidence and supply" pact, the DUP will only be obligated to support the Conservatives on votes of non-confidence, the acceptance of the Throne Speech and the government's budget. But the trade-offs for this support could have more far-reaching implications: DUP documents suggest that financial and symbolic shoring up of Northern Ireland's place in the U.K. may be crucial to any agreement.

While the majority of Northern Irish voters in last year's Brexit referendum cast their ballots against leaving the EU, Ms. Foster and her DUP colleagues will not see any contradiction in supporting Ms. May's "hard Brexit" approach to the upcoming negotiations with Brussels. Even though the openness of the Irish border and the two jurisdictions' mutual relationship with Europe has been crucial to the success of the Good Friday Agreement since its signing in 1998, the DUP's first and only loyalty is to the Union. It will sacrifice all other values on this altar.

In the most likely Brexit scenarios, Northern Ireland will need to seek increased funding from Westminster to replace the billions in EU subsidies it currently receives in support of its biggest industries – agriculture, tourism and peace research. However, the province has had to accommodate significant cutbacks from the London Parliament – the most recent deal on resolving long-standing legacy issues related to the Troubles was anchored to an unpalatable austerity package that hit many of Northern Ireland's most vulnerable citizens the hardest.

For its part, the DUP's republican rival Sinn Fein will be seeking a "special designation" status for Northern Ireland to retain its EU benefits – but as Sinn Fein on principle refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the U.K. Parliament, their seven MPs will seek to influence the Brexit negotiations through their counterparts in the Irish Dail and the European Parliament. Since last year's Brexit vote, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has repeatedly demanded a referendum on reunification – and did so again on Friday as the Conservative-DUP pact materialized. But in the Irish Republic, where the governing Fine Gael party has just elected a conservative new leader, there seems to be little desire to test the fragile economic recovery with the unknowable unknowns of a United Ireland.

Within Northern Ireland, the DUP faces challenges of its own. After a tumultuous year mired in scandal and a near tie with Sinn Fein in the regional Assembly election, Ms. Foster has endured repeated calls to step down. Six months after the resignation of the Sinn Fein deputy First Minister (the late Martin McGuinness), the region's government remains in suspended animation, unable to agree the basic framework for co-governance.

Furthermore, the 2015 "English votes for English laws" order, which restricts England-centric decisions to English MPs, neither the 10 DUP members nor the 13 Scottish Tories will be able to support Ms. May on regional issues. Despite labelling the nascent partnership between the parties as a "government of certainty," Ms. May and Ms. Foster appear to be adrift on a sea of uncertainties.

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Irish parties have been the kingmakers in Westminster before, ironically placing "the Irish Question" firmly at the heart of British political dynamics. The last time, it provoked the independence movement, the unionist paramilitary resistance and the threat of all-island civil war. The stakes may not be so high in the present, but they are no less significant for the future relationships between Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom.

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