Show Hide image

The DUP are the real winners of the 2017 general election

Having gone from eight seats to 10, they will now wield massive influence over the next government. 

It has been a sensational election for the DUP in more ways than one. Not only have are they on course to win 10 of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats – up from eight in 2015 – but the likelihood is that the Conservatives will need their support to govern.

Can they count on it? The answer is almost certainly yes. The DUP were among the most enthusiastic supporters of May’s premiership in the last parliament, and senior party sources indicate that it would be “correct” to assume that they would in no circumstances support a minority Labour administration. That, given Corbyn’s well-publicised links with Sinn Fein, is no surprise.

Read more: Election results show a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party

The only way the Conservatives will be able to govern effectively is with DUP support – which will likely take the form of an informal confidence and supply arrangement rather than a formal coalition.

With the abstentionist Sinn Fein on course to win seven seats, the DUP and independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon will be the only Northern Irish MPs sitting in the next parliament. The SDLP, the moderate nationalist party, have almost certainly lost all three of theirs.

What might this mean in practice? This result underlines a truth revealed by the March Stormont election: Northern Ireland, divided by Brexit, is voting along orange-on-green lines, and there is little room left for the middle ground. And that the DUP will be calling the shots – even if the Tories win a majority – augurs very badly indeed for power-sharing talks at Stormont (but well for a Brexit deal that incorporates a fudge on the Irish border).

The closeness of the government to the DUP in the last parliament led to James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, taking lines that were frankly nakedly partisan on issues such as Troubles legacy prosecutions. This, like the other points of disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein, was supposed to have been dealt with by the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015.

Brokenshire’s posturing won him few admirers among the nationalist cohort at Westminster. If Nigel Dodds ends up wielding considerable influence over the next Tory government, he will have fewer still. There is very little trust and very little goodwill left on Sinn Fein’s part towards the UK government, and, indeed, its ability to broker a deal that saves the devolved institutions.

The adversarial arithmetic created by Northern Ireland’s results will likely exhaust it. But both sides win: the DUP will wield the influence they have become accustomed to, and Sinn Fein’s line that the structures created by the Good Friday Agreement are untenable will be further bolstered.  

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?