LONDON // British prime minister Theresa May on Sunday suffered a further setback in her efforts to stay in power after Dublin warned that her plans to form an alliance with a Northern Irish party could upset the region’s fragile peace.
In a phone call, Irish premier Enda Kenny told Mrs May that forming a minority government reliant on the support of the hardline Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) could pose a “challenge” to the 1998 Good Friday peace accords.
The future of the proposed alliance had already been thrown into confusion late on Saturday after Mrs May’s office announced that an outline agreement had been struck, only to backtrack and say that talks were still ongoing.
“The taoiseach (Mr Kenny) indicated his concern that nothing should happen to put the Good Friday Agreement at risk and the challenge that this agreement will bring,” an Irish government spokesman said.
London’s neutrality is key to the delicate balance of power in Northern Ireland, which was once plagued by violence over Britain’s control of the country.
Mrs May responded that the DUP deal “would provide stability and certainty for the UK going forward”, her office said.
The 60-year-old is struggling to reassert her authority after losing her parliamentary majority in Thursday’s snap election, just days before Brexit talks begin.
The Sunday newspapers carried reports that foreign secretary Boris Johnson was set to launch a bid to oust her, although he dismissed them as “tripe”, insisting on Twitter: “I’m backing Theresa May.”
Former Conservative party leaders have warned that any immediate leadership challenge would be too disruptive, but most commentators believe Mrs May cannot survive in the long term.
A stream of senior lawmakers entered the prime minister’s office at 10 Downing Street on Sunday afternoon, to learn what roles they had been given in the new government.
Mrs May’s weakened position in the party rules out big changes to the cabinet line-up, and Downing Street has already said that the most senior ministers – including treasury chief Philip Hammond, Mr Johnson and home secretary Amber Rudd – will keep their jobs.
With the new government set to present its legislative programme to parliament on June 19, the clock is now ticking on efforts to bolster the Conservatives’ position after they won just 318 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, the lower, elected house of the British parliament.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said there had been “very good discussions” so far on how her 10 MPs could support a Conservative minority government, and that she would travel to London to meet Mrs May on Tuesday.
Defence secretary Michael Fallon said the government was not looking at a formal coalition but would seek assurances that the DUP would vote with Mrs May “on the big things” such as the budget, defence issues and Brexit.
He stressed he did not share their ultra-conservative views on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, which have caused disquiet among many Conservatives.
More than 600,000 people have signed a petition condemning the proposed alliance, saying it is a “disgusting, desperate attempt to stay in power”.
Ms Foster has yet to set out her demands but her party wants an end to prosecutions of British soldiers who fought in Northern Ireland and an easing of restrictions on parades.
Any concessions on these points are likely to antagonise the nationalist republican Sinn Fein party, with whom the DUP shared power before their government collapsed earlier this year amid a breakdown in trust.
Mrs May has shown little public contrition for the electoral gamble that backfired but was forced to accept the resignations of her two closest aides – reportedly a requirement by cabinet colleagues for allowing her to stay in office.
The prime minister spoke to German chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday and confirmed she was ready to start Brexit talks “as planned in the next couple of weeks”. The negotiations had been due to start around June 19.
* Agence France-Presse, with additional reporting by Associated Press