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Inside the mind of the DUP: What will the Northern Irish unionists be demanding from Theresa May?

Andrew McQuillan

4 min read

The shock snap election result that left Theresa May grappling with the DUP to prop up her Government opened up a major question: What will the Northern Irish unionists be demanding? DUP expert Andrew McQuillan explains the party's mindset, what it may be asking for, and how it risks overplaying its hand.

The irony of the Democratic Unionist Party supporting Theresa May’s embattled Government was something not lost on veteran Northern Ireland watchers. That the party of Ian Paisley, which had lambasted Prime Ministers and Secretaries of State of all political persuasions as traitors, was now presenting itself as a guarantor of “strong and stable” government was remarkable given its genesis as an obstinate force throughout the Northern Ireland Troubles and the early part of the peace process.

Much of the media coverage of the party has clung to those previous conceptions. It would be remiss not to acknowledge some of the outrageous and distasteful statements a number of the party’s elected members have made over the years on several subjects, particularly LGBTI rights and the environment. However, to present Northern Ireland under the DUP as the Ulster version of The Handmaid’s Tale policed by the red berets of the Ulster Resistance is to miss the journey made by the party and neglect how its character has changed from when it was very much a party of protest. Working with Sinn Fein – albeit with bumps along the way – to preside over the longest period of devolved rule since before the Troubles, the DUP has shown its skills in the art of negotiation, graduating from a stance of “never, never, never” to “maybe, yes”.

What does this mean for the wider governance of the UK? The instructive document is not the party’s rather miserly 2017 manifesto buts its 2015 counterpart. Compiled on the understanding a hung parliament was the most likely outcome, it contains a wish list so skewed towards improved finance for Northern Ireland that even the most avaricious local government leader or devolutionist would baulk at the demands within. Only an assured and experienced negotiating team would put together such a proposal, and given the party’s record in largely getting what it wants from talks, the DUP will not doubt believe they are operating from a position of strength. The party’s social agenda, aside from some glib phrases, is largely missing from the document. A bonfire of the equalities this is not.

The impact of more motorways in the Province on the fabric of the nation should however not simply be viewed in financial terms. Scottish Nationalists, their Welsh associates and the sizeable lobby within the Conservative Party which claim a democratic deficit has emerged due to devolution will all have various issues with more money being dispatched to Northern Ireland. Wither Barnett?

Equally, the partisanship inherent within Ulster politics could feature within the deal and have wide ranging consequences. Despite working with Sinn Fein, the DUP regard it as in their interest to be seen to get one over the republicans, believing that triumphing in the zero-sum game assures them votes and secures the Union. It has been suggested limiting Sinn Fein’s Westminster funding, curtailing outside donations from the UK and payment for victims of the Troubles could be part of the deal, along with demands for no border poll in Ireland and “no side deals” with republicans.

Given Northern Ireland politics and aspects of daily life are still governed by the “tyranny of the past”, any such emotionally charged demands could contribute to further entrenchment on the nationalist side. This is far removed from the strategy adopted by Peter Robinson in 2008, who said the future of Northern Ireland within the UK would be assured by building better relations with the nationalist community.

The DUP’s credentials in government have shown it as a cautious, redistributive force. Constitutional conservatism and timid, steady as she goes policies have won it unionist hegemony. It regards the opportunity presented to it by the election result as one which could ensure its position, ergo that of Northern Ireland within the Union. Overplaying its hand, which seems to be the Treasury’s analysis, is a departure from its negotiating approach which could harm perceptions of the party.

Making predictions is a fools’ errand in politics, particularly now. The DUP’s hand could result in a softer Brexit and softer austerity. Yet other demands could compound existing constitutional turmoil and if the deal collapses in acrimony, the backlash could be ferocious. Whether no deal is better than a bad deal remains to be seen.

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