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UK government faces legal challenge to its alliance with N Irish party

[LONDON] A legal challenge began in a London court on Thursday against the deal between Britain's ruling Conservatives and a Northern Ireland party that allowed the government to cobble together a parliamentary majority in June.

After losing their majority in a disastrous snap election on June 8, Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservatives secured support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in return for a pledge to spend an extra £1 billion (S$ 1.8 billion) in Northern Ireland.

In a crowdfunded legal challenge brought by a Northern Irish citizen, lawyers argued that the deal, known as a confidence-and-supply agreement, was corrupt because it amounted to using public money to buy votes.

"We say the Conservative Party purchased the political support of the DUP for the sum of £1 billion," lawyer Dominic Chambers told the High Court at the start of a one-day hearing to seek permission for judicial review of the agreement.

His colleague John Cooper later said the deal was an offence under the Bribery Act 2010, arguing that the government had offered advantages to induce DUP members of parliament to exercise their voting rights improperly.

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Government lawyers rejected both lines of attack.

They argued that that the public expenditure contemplated by the deal would be authorised by parliament, and that the criminal law of bribery did not apply to a confidence-and-supply agreement between political parties.

The challenge was launched by Ciaran McClean, a mental health worker and Green Party member living in Northern Ireland, who raised £92,000 on a crowdfunding website and was present in court on Thursday.

Mr McClean wrote on his fundraising page that he was horrified by the Conservative-DUP deal, which he said violated Northern Ireland's 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Under the peace deal, which ended decades of armed sectarian conflict in the province, the UK government is required to be impartial between unionists who want the province to remain part of the UK and republicans who aspire to become part of Ireland.

"The government is threatening hard-won peace with their pact with the reactionary DUP," Mr McClean wrote.

However, for technical legal reasons, the issue of whether the Conservative-DUP agreement was a violation of the peace deal did not form part of the arguments heard by the High Court.

Northern Ireland's semi-autonomous institutions have been paralysed since January because of the collapse of a power-sharing agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the largest republican party.

Mrs May, who replaced David Cameron as prime minister after the Brexit referendum in June 2016, inherited a narrow parliamentary majority from him.

In April 2017, with opinion polls suggesting she had a double-digit lead over the opposition Labour Party, she called a snap election, hoping to increase her majority.

But after an uninspiring campaign in which the Conservatives' main new policy pledge was dropped within days because it appeared unpopular, they lost their majority.

Support from the DUP's 10 members of parliament has enabled Mrs May to cling to power as Britain moves closer to the challenge of leaving the European Union.

It is not the first time Mrs May's government has faced a citizen's challenge over a major policy.

Last year, it lost a legal battle initiated by businesswoman Gina Miller over whether it could trigger the Brexit process without parliamentary assent.


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