By Friday, Theresa May was delivering a sombre statement in Downing Street, confirming her intention of cooperating with “our friends and allies” in the DUP. “Our two parties have enjoyed a strong relationship over many years, and this gives me the confidence to believe that we will be able to work together, in the interests of the whole United Kingdom,” she said.
So who are the DUP? What price will they demand for propping up a minority Conservative government? And what impact will that have on Northern Ireland’s devolved government?
The party has come along way since being established in 1971 by the firebrand Presbyterian preacher Iain Paisley, famous for his anti-Catholic rallying call of “No Rome Rule.” For the past decade, the DUP has been the largest unionist party in a power-sharing government with the Irish republicans Sinn Féin.
With the Tories now eight seats short of an overall majority, Theresa May will need to rely on the DUP’s 10 Westminster MPs. Rather than entering a formal coalition, the Unionists look set to enter into a “confidence and supply” deal with the Conservatives, giving the DUP an unprecedented role in the British government.
DUP leader Arlene Foster acknowledged the deal Friday, but offered few details: “The prime minister has spoken with me this morning and we will enter discussions with the Conservatives to explore how it may be possible to bring stability to our nation at this time of great challenge.”
Time has not completely mellowed the staunchly conservative DUP’s political outlook. The party cleaves to an evangelical political philosophy that would not look out of place on the fringes of the Republican Party in the United States. Senior DUP figures believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, that climate change is a myth and support a return of the death penalty. It opposes same-sex marriage and has fought to halt an extension of abortion rights.
But such eye-catching attitudes belie a deep strain of pragmatism that runs through the DUP and its leader Foster. Cold hard cash, rather than culture wars, is likely to underpin the Unionists’ key demands from May and a minority Tory government.
“People will probably find that they are nowhere near as lunatic fringe as some of these stories suggest. The DUP will not be in a position to overturn the climate change act or bring back the death penalty,’ said Sam McBride, political editor of the unionist-leaning Belfast Newsletter.
When it comes to concessions from Westminster, the DUP will focus on “financial demands,” said McBride. “I don’t think they will ask to be in the cabinet or anything like that.”
Brexit is likely to be high on the DUP’s wish list. Foster’s party backed leaving the European Union — although a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain — and the DUP has opposed any bespoke settlement for the region in the Brexit talks.
On Friday, Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, said the party “will only support a Conservative government if Northern Ireland is not granted any unique special status that would keep the region halfway inside the EU.”
But the DUP could shape Brexit in other ways, too. The party has said repeatedly that it opposes both a hard border on the island of Ireland and the imposition of any customs regime at Irish ports and airports, which would create a de facto border in the Irish Sea.
“The big thing for the DUP is the Brexit stuff around the border. The big fear for them is a border in the Irish Sea. That will be the red line for the DUP,’ said John McCallister, former deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.
How the DUP’s twin demands of no special status for Northern Ireland and no hard border along the 310-mile boundary with the Irish republic can both be accommodated is unclear. What seems more certain is that the party will demand increased public spending in Northern Ireland in return for their support.
Over a decade in office, the DUP has gained a reputation for pork barrel politics. Earlier this year, the devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed over a botched renewable heating scheme that appears to have disproportionately benefited rural farmers, a key DUP constituency.
The party has been beset by other scandals. During last June’s EU referendum, the Democratic Unionists spent £425,000 campaigning for Brexit — in England, Wales, and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland. The DUP has refused to release details of the source of this donation. That’s legal under Northern Irish donor secrecy laws but has fed into wider questions about the party’s probity. The party only distanced itself from an endorsement by loyalist paramilitaries two days before the general election.
Politically, supporting a Conservative government poses relatively few difficulties for the DUP. The party has long been close to the Tories, especially since May replaced the more modernizing David Cameron.
But, ironically, the DUP has less leverage in Westminster than if May had achieved a small overall majority. The Unionists publicly said they would never support Jeremy Corbyn on account of the Labour leader’s sympathetic comments about Irish republicanism. To collapse a Conservative government, and potentially usher in a Corbyn administration, is unlikely to be well received by DUP voters.
Power-sharing on hold
While the DUP is preparing to enter government in London, albeit informally, the prospect of a return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland has suddenly become far more remote. Talks are due to resume Monday between Sinn Féin and the DUP, but many are asking how a British government that will rely on Unionist support to rule can act as an honest broker. Some fear this unprecedented scenario could undermine the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace accord the DUP initially opposed but eventually agreed to administer.
“How can Sinn Féin enter into negotiations with the British government if the DUP are effectively part of the British government?” said Jonny Byrne, lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster. “The British and Irish governments are the guardians of the Good Friday Agreement. The entire system is based on that distance.”
A senior Sinn Féin source told POLITICO that power-sharing negotiations have “become much more difficult” in the wake of the DUP’s deal with the Tories in Westminster.
The DUP had a very strong performance in the general election, leaving the once dominant Ulster Unionist Party without an MP. But Sinn Féin, who do not take their seats in the House of Commons, had a good night too, gaining three seats to take the party’s total to seven.
“Nationalist voters have clearly turned their backs on Westminster,” the Sinn Féin source said. “The point they have made is they don’t see their future as being tied to Britain. The British government will have to recognize that too.”
With no nationalist MPs sitting in Westminster, and a DUP role in the British government, further political destabilization in Northern Ireland could yet be a by-product of Thursday’s unexpected general election result. Some predict it could be years before devolution is reinstated in Northern Ireland, if it ever is.
Author: Peter Geoghegan