The DUP for early learners

12 June 2017

Theresa May’s ongoing efforts of forming a minority government with the Democratic Unionist Party following last Thursday’s hung parliament have propelled the Northern Ireland party into the national spotlight. Professor John Brewer of Queen’s University Belfast offers a ‘crash course’ in the DUP, the price of cooperation and risks for both parties, and how this will impact on the Conservative agenda.

To many of the people who live there, Northern Ireland seems a place time forgot, but it is certainly the place that the British media neglected in the election. Excluded from televised leaders’ debates, only the IRA rated a mention. It is deeply ironic therefore, that the Democratic Unionist Party, endorsed by Loyalist paramilitary bodies, one of which, the Ulster Defence Association, was allegedly implicated in a murder during the election campaign, should now be power brokers. This has provoked a sudden and intense interest by the British media in the DUP and a social media storm, drawing attention to some of its worst features. It has been like a crash course in the DUP for early learners.

As a fiercely pro-Brexit party, the DUP might seem to fit the ambition that some Brexiteers had to live again in the 1950s, but in the DUP’s case it sometimes appears to be the 1850s. They support creationism, have described breastfeeding as exhibitionism, decry homosexuality as abomination, try to ban drink at beer festivals, are strong Sabbatarians – even withdrawing from sensitive political talks that carried over to a Sunday – and push a moral and social conservativism that gives Northern Ireland more restricted abortion access than Texas, let alone the rest of Great Britain. They ban equal marriage and used public resources to try to ban gay people from giving blood.

Social media is having great fun in drawing all this to the attention of a largely ignorant British public, with photoshopped clips, for example, of Downing Street with red, white and blue curb stones, Teresa May as a bandswoman playing a tin whistle, and effigies of Jeremy Corbyn atop 11th night bonfires that prefix the Orange Order marches on 12th July instead of the usual assortment of the Pope, Irish politicians and Sinn Fein members. It has been a rude awakening for Britain that people in Northern Ireland live with constantly.

This caricature of the DUP was reinforced by the Portadown Orange Lodge immediately issuing a statement that they expect the DUP to now pressure the Conservative government to protect their right to march in Drumcree through a nationalist area where they are not wanted; as if May’s priorities will be theirs. However, there is a risk in this parody for the DUP to be misunderstood.

Its moral and social conservatism is supported by the Catholic Church, which as a result of ‘the Troubles’ is much more traditional than its Southern sister church, and it has shown remarkable political pragmatism to turn itself in to the party that has sufficient seats in Westminster to be able to prop up the Conservative government. It is always successful in winning working-class Loyalist support despite this being against the class interests of Loyalists, and it took only a relatively brief time for the DUP to almost obliterate the Ulster Unionist Party that had for over a century dominated Ulster politics. They are politically astute, not fools.

They are astute enough to know there are risks to the DUP in this informal coalition. They will be joining a sinking ship and will take some of the blame when it finally succumbs. They have been exposed to media ridicule, and critics of the May government will focus their ire on the DUP now as much as on the Conservatives. This is why the DUP is avoiding a formal coalition in the manner of the Liberal Democrats which more or less ruined that party electorally.

There is, however, much to gain. The DUP’s sense of Britishness is reinforced by this ‘service to the stability of the nation’, as the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, has already termed it. Brexit showed how irrelevant the DUP’s Britishness is to the narrow English nationalism that won Brexit support in the deindustrialised former manufacturing towns that was as much anti-Irish and anti-Scottish as it was anti-immigrant. The informal coalition allows the DUP to feel its sense of Britishness is mainstream again.

The DUP can also push its favourite issues and concerns. In this regard, we need to rein in the fears. The DUP’s priorities will be narrowly Northern Irish. The DUP will not seek to advance its moral and social conservative agenda on the British mainland; the equality agenda in Britain will not be rolled back. What it will do, however, is to seek to secure that a British government does not force its equality agenda on Northern Ireland. The DUP will seek to hermetically seal Northern Ireland off from the British values that define equality and respect for diversity on the British mainland, ignoring the contradiction this creates in its claims to Britishness.

The DUP will also secure from the British government that there will be no border poll on Irish reunification. Brexit has made Irish reunification imaginable and returned it to the political agenda. The huge support for Sinn Fein in the election suggests there is a groundswell of opinion for a border poll. The DUP’s eagerness to go into informal coalition, despite the risks, is to out manoeuvre Sinn Fein by copper fastening the Union.

There is thus some truth to Sinn Fein’s claim that the main losers from this informal coalition will be the people of Northern Ireland; at least, those who want progressive social policies, full equality, and a border poll.

The DUP, however, could stymie and confuse everyone and seize what is also a remarkable opportunity. If it were to use its new-found influence to push for a soft Brexit, to advance Northern Ireland’s claims for special status, to support a soft border with the Irish Republic, and to resist further welfare cuts throughout the UK, it would show the sort of pragmatism that won it ten MPs and it could outfox us all. Its reputation would be enhanced and the parodies undermined. It has already come out, however, against special status.

The DUP has much to lose, but also much to gain. Power without principle is self-aggrandisement. The DUP has an opportunity to use power for public duty. Will it take it?

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.