With the Conservatives running a minority government, Theresa May has had to court the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party. Who are they and why has the deal caused trouble?

 In the ringing aftermath of the UK’s General Election of June 8th 2017, what was clear was that due to the results, in which the Conservative Party lead by Theresa May lost their Parliamentary majority, the Tories would have to cosy up to their only possible coalition partner, the Democratic Unionist Party, in order to continue their legislative programme. Since that time the Tory-DUP negotiations have been in the political spotlight and have caused huge problems for the Government and May.

The Tories won just 318 seats at the election, 8 seats below the necessary number needed of 326 to form an outright majority Government, whilst the Labour Party won 30 seats to come in at 262 seats. For Labour it was mathematically impossible to form a majority coalition Government with any of its likely partners – whether they be the Scottish Nationalists, reduced to just 35 seats; the Liberal Democrats, who had a measly net gain of 4 seats to just edge into double figures; Plaid Cymru who won 4 seats; the Greens who clung onto their fortress of Brighton Pavilion and the Social Democratic Labour Party of Northern Ireland, who despite previously voting with the Labour whip, would not have a chance to in the new Parliament due to their losing all 3 of their seats to the abstentionist Sinn Fein and the aforementioned DUP. As such, despite the fervour which had gripped Labour, leading to the presumption, according to the leadership that the Party was a “government in waiting”, it was very much up to the Prime Minister, despite her electoral bruising to form a minority Government.

With every Party in the Commons save the Democratic Unionists outwardly hostile to the Conservatives, whether it be due to nationalist sentiment or deep-rooted policy and ideological differences, Theresa May had little choice but to court (somewhat ironically, considering their stance on same-sex marriage) Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Irish First Minister and MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as well as leader of the 10 DUP MP’s in the Commons, Nigel Dodds, MP for North Belfast. Aside from the more philosophical objection of 10 MP’s of a party which stands exclusively in a province of the UK which, at the 2011 census, comprised just 2.9% of its citizens effectively being the censors of a central government which has authority over 63 million people, two other issues immediately presented themselves. The first was the demands which the DUP might seek, the second the state in which such a deal may leave the fragile peace in Northern Ireland.

The Reverend Ian Paisley (Centre), founder of the Democratic Unionist Party,  at a loyalist day of action protesting against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed in 1985, which gave the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in the North’s politics (Credit: Burns Library under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

First off, the DUP and its demands. The thought that a smaller political party may exert some influence on a national government may make a few people feel uneasy, but this sentiment was amplified due to the DUP’s less than sparkling record on social issues. The DUP has its roots in one man: the Reverend Ian Paisley. Paisley founded the DUP in 1970 which became rooted in the conservative Protestant traditions of Paisley’s denomination, the Free Presbyterians. Inextricably the conservative Christian values of the DUP were absorbed into mainstream Unionism – the DUP having superseded the Ulster Unionists at the 2005 General Election, a party which itself was not indicative of liberalism.

Noticeable in the DUP’s repertoire of social conservatism is their aversion to LGBT rights. Between 1977 – 1982 the DUP lead the so-called ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign, which aimed to prevent the extension of the end of the criminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting males over the age of 21, which had been introduced in England and Wales under the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Individuals associated to the DUP, such as Councillor Alan Kane, made clear in one leaflet regarding the issue that homosexuality, “debases individuals, degrades society [and]… is a direct attack on the family.”

Eventually the British Government did extend to Northern Ireland homosexual law reform in 1982. Since 1982 however, the DUP has consistently opposed, in legislative and supportive terms, the extension of LGBT emancipation to Northern Irish citizens. After the extension of equal marriage to LGBT couples in England, Wales and Scotland through the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, the DUP as the leading party in Stormont, the Northern Irish executive, blocked its extension to the province. Even after a vote in 2015 in Stormont, in which a majority of MLA’s backed the extension of same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland, the proposal was once again blocked by the DUP.

Members of the DUP, aside from blocking the pro-LGBT rights in the Northern Irish legislature, have been even more outwardly homophobic. Several DUP Councillors have been reported to suggest homosexuality can be ‘cured’ or that it should be recriminalised. Another notable, albeit more considered conservative policy, is that of Paul Givan, MLA for Lagan Valley, who after the so-called ‘Gay Cake Case’ covered in a previous article, suggested the introduction of a ‘conscience clause’ into Northern Irish law, which would allow for the refusal of service and goods to be legal on strongly held religious grounds – such as in opposition to equal marriage.

Councillor Thomas Kerrigan of the DUP suggesting, in 2015, that homosexuality can be cured – the DUP’s often perceived veiled homophobia has been cause for concern for some in the UK mainland over their influence in Government

Aside from the LGBT objection, the DUP also has a record of strictly conservative stances on abortion, an issue on which they have managed to maintain Northern Ireland’s incredibly strict abortion laws; on creationism, which in 2007 became the centre of a row after Paul Givan, the same MLA who supported Asher’s Baking Company, brought a proposal before Lisburn Council to encourage the area’s schools to teach ‘creationism’ and ‘intelligent design’; and on climate change, former Northern Irish Environment Secretary and current MP for East Antrim, Sammy Wilson, described global warming as “a con” and called the Paris Climate Accord, “totally flawed and pointless.”

Because of this cornucopia of conservative policies, many had concern that the DUP would demand the alignment of the UK mainland with Northern Irish law – be that by near-banning abortions, rolling back LGBT rights or cutting funding for family planning groups. Such a deal would have been disastrous for the recently modernised Conservatives, but the deal which we actually got, finally, on 26th June, almost 3 weeks after the final election result was declared in Kensington & Chelsea, may not have been much better for the Government.

In the deal, signed by the Chief Whips of the DUP and Conservatives, the DUP’s 10 MP’s promised to support the Government on ‘motions of confidence’ and the Queen’s Speech – effectively measures such as the budget which the Government needs to pass for the activities of the Government to continue, as well as all matters pertaining the Brexit negotiations. Other matters would be supported on a case-by-case basis, intended, no doubt, to reassure liberal Tories such as Ruth Davidson, who have previously stated their intention to fight to protect LGBT rights. However, even more deathly for the Tories was the monetary commitments and manifesto promises which were implemented and dropped respectively. At the behest of the DUP, the Conservatives are enabling Northern Ireland with an additional £1 billion budget sweetener – with each DUP MP effectively being bought for £100 million each. As well as this, the DUP forced a humiliating climbdown on two key Tory policies – demanding the means test of Winter Fuel Allowance is not implemented, sparing millions of pensioners effective cuts to their fuel allowance; and ensuring the Tories did not ditch the Triple Lock on pensions.

This £1 billion deal came as somewhat of a slap-in-the-face to many English, Welsh and Scottish citizens who had been repeatedly told by the Government, that there was no ‘magic money tree’ for policies such as increasing the pay of NHS nurses and yet, to keep clinging onto the reigns of power, a billion pounds had been found which seemingly had materialised out of thin air. The entire deal stank of political opportunism, which broke open the hypocrisy of Tory fiscal policy and frankly the discourse before as to the simplistic money tree metaphor had been insulting to the dignity of the British people. This has only further weakened the Tories stance on austerity, which with this investment in Northern Ireland, is becoming increasingly unjustifiable by the day.

Aside from the political concerns however, from a legalistic perspective, the deal threw a very important deal into the air – the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. In short, the Agreement ended the Troubles between the Republican and Unionist factions within the North and that, in doing so, the British Government must act as an impartial party in maintaining the peace. However, as has been pointed out, such as by John Major, former Prime Minister, the deal with the DUP may jeopardise this most fragile of peaces. The Stormont Executive has been non-existent, due to DUP and Sinn Fein non-cooperation since an election in January this year and the UK Government, according to Good Friday, is the arbitrator for fixing the problem, but, as was stated by Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the influence of the DUP over Westminster may compromise their neutrality in Northern Ireland, meaning the peace process may be thrown into question. For a province torn apart by civil conflict less than 30 years ago, this is a very real problem.

So, the DUP deal has the potential to wreck peace in Northern Ireland and deal a blow to confidence in Conservative austerity plans. But will it? Well, only time will tell and as Harold Wilson famously quipped, “A week is a long time in politics.” By next week, who knows where we will be?