In a stunning upset, the British electorate moved sharply to the left in Thursday’s general election. The Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, gained dozens of seats, while Theresa May’s governing Conservatives lost their majority.
When the prime minister called the snap election seven weeks ago, polls suggested she’d win a massive majority.
But Corbyn’s ebullient grassroots campaign, built on policies of free university tuition, social justice and more investment in public services, generated enthusiasm that defied virtually all expectations.
May moves right
Diminished and humiliated, May will hang on as prime minister for now. But unable to command a majority in the House of Commons on their own, the Conservatives will rely for support on the 10 lawmakers from the Democratic Unionist Party, a Christian Zionist group in Northern Ireland which pushes extreme pro-Israel policies.
It also staunchly opposes same-sex marriage, a position that might make it more at home in America’s Bible Belt.
This means that while the British electorate embraces more progressive policies, May is likely to hunker down and move even further to the right in defiance of public opinion, including the growing support for Palestinian rights.
Who are the DUP
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was founded in the early 1970s by the late Ian Paisley, a Protestant cleric notorious for his anti-Catholic bigotry.
Paisley’s DUP opposed any change in the status quo of Northern Ireland, an entity created by the British in 1921. As Ireland struggled for its independence, the British imposed partition in order to give Protestants, largely descended from Scottish and English settlers, an artificial majority.
This “Protestant state for a Protestant people” ruled over Irish Catholics with bigotry and an iron fist.
Unionists’ violent rejection of Irish nationalist demands for equality in the late 1960s inaugurated the three-decade low-level civil war known as “The Troubles” in which more than 3,500 people were killed and 50,000 injured – nearly two percent of the Northern Ireland population.
Paisley’s demagoguery and incitement has been blamed for at least some of the deaths in the conflict.
But after almost a lifetime spent opposing accommodation, in 2007 Paisley led the DUP into a power-sharing government with the leaders of Sinn Féin – the party he had just a few years earlier denounced as a “filthy nest of murderous Irish nationalism.”
Although Paisley underwent some form of transformation, many in his party have not and the DUP leadership is accused of maintaining ties with violent pro-British extremist groups, called loyalists, that carried out hundreds of sectarian murders of Catholics.
Loyalist paramilitaries endorsed DUP candidates in Thursday’s election.
After Ireland’s 1998 peace deal, the Good Friday Agreement, politicians can no longer utter open expressions of anti-Catholic bigotry of the kind in which Paisley routinely indulged.
But some of that bigotry appears to have morphed into Islamophobia. In 2014, an evangelical pastor attacked Muslims as “satanic.” The DUP’s Peter Robinson, first minister of Northern Ireland at the time, defended the comments, before eventually apologizing amid public outrage.
Friends of Israel
The DUP is a staunchly pro-Israel party – Ian Paisley himself launched the group Northern Ireland Friends of Israel in 2009.
Before this election, members of the DUP joined dozens of candidates from other parties signing a so-called “Pledge for Israel.”
The party also has its own DUP Friends of Israel lobby group in the Northern Ireland legislature.
Northern Ireland Friends of Israel co-chair Steven Jaffe explained that the party’s strong support for Israel stems in part from religious beliefs.
“Many DUP [members of Parliament] come from a Bible-believing Protestant background,” he told The Times of Israel in 2014. “They have a very sincere and positive attitude to the biblical roots of the Jewish people’s connection to the land.”
Since 2015, CUFI also has a UK branch. The group had been due to celebrate in London 50 years of violent Israeli occupation in the West Bank at a “Night to Honor Israel,” before it was canceled amid what it claimed were security threats.
The “Pledge for Israel” was also emailed by CUFI UK to its supporters just before the election.
The identification also stems from the shared history that Northern Ireland was created through imposed partition, for the benefit of a settler-colonial group, against the wishes and rights of the indigenous population, just like Israel’s 1948 creation in Palestine.
The DUP “identify with Israel fighting for its survival, and they feel the international media is unfairly hostile to Israel just as they believe it was hostile to their own cause,” Jaffe explained.
Veteran Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn shed light on this sense of a common cause between Zionists and pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland, during Israel’s December 2008 to January 2009 invasion of the Gaza Strip, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians.
Israeli society “reminds me more than ever of the unionists in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s,” he observed. Like Israelis, unionists were a community “with a highly developed siege mentality which led them always to see themselves as victims even when they were killing other people. There were no regrets or even knowledge of what they inflicted on others and therefore any retaliation by the other side appeared as unprovoked aggression inspired by unreasoning hate.”
As The Electronic Intifada’s David Cronin has observed, “the racist discourse of the Protestant establishment in the north of Ireland” is “almost identical to what Israeli politicians say about Arabs.”
Exporting repression to Palestine
The overall responsibility for the violence lay with the British state, which propped up the bigoted Northern Ireland regime for decades.
But while the peace process ended the most violent manifestations of British repression, that apparatus of state violence has been rebranded for export to Palestine.
Several veterans of the now disbanded Royal Ulster Constabulary have been employed by the European Union to train Palestinian Authority security forces that work closely with Israel’s military occupation.
The morning after the vote, it is no wonder that many are describing May’s desperate deal with the DUP to stay in power as the “Bad Friday Agreement.”
- 2017 UK general election
- Theresa May
- Northern Ireland
- Northern Ireland Friends of Israel
- Ian Paisley
- Ayelet Shaked
- Labour Party
- Jeremy Corbyn
- Owen Jones
- Sinn Fein
- Royal Ulster Constabulary
- Peter Robinson
- Christian Zionism
- Christians United for Israel
- Patrick Cockburn