Lifting the lid on the DUP
After signing a confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives, DUP MPs suddenly find themselves in high demand. James Millar talks to Nigel Dodds, as well as figures from across the political spectrum, to see how the party is viewed at Westminster
Nigel Dodds is gutted that Northern Ireland failed to make it to the World Cup. But on the plus side it means his group of 10 DUP MPs remains the most successful team to come out of Northern Ireland this year.
If the football side had made it to Russia’s showpiece summer tourney it would have provided a fitting parallel to the DUP’s current position. A small, unflashy team punching above their weight, in no danger of winning the big prize but capable of having an influence on the outcome. And, it seems, gaining fans.
Andrew Murrison, the chair of the Northern Ireland affairs select committee, describes his DUP colleagues as “hard-working, committed people, firmly rooted in Northern Ireland and advancing the position of their constituents with the considerable abilities they have”.
Labour’s Kate Hoey, a native of Country Antrim, is equally gushing: “They are making a vital and important contribution. They have an important role in parliament which is great. It’s really important Northern Irish politicians, like SNP politicians, do get involved in the UK parliament.”
And there’s no doubt that since the June general election DUP politicians have been involved at Westminster like never before, after signing a confidence and supply agreement to keep Theresa May’s administration afloat.
“It’s a very good time to be in the DUP,” the party’s deputy leader and Westminster chief, Nigel Dodds, says. “We’ve had good times before, we’ve had difficult times, it’s one of the best times.”
The party’s representatives are suddenly in demand. “There are think tanks, embassies, universities, political societies all wanting to hear from us to talk about not just Northern Ireland issues but national issues particularly around Brexit,” he adds. “We relish the opportunity to tell the story of Northern Ireland.”
But has this affected how the party conducts itself? Andrew Murrison laughs: “If you’re asking me if the DUP are swaggering around the place then no, they’ve carried themselves with great dignity, I’m not aware of them throwing their weight around. They are not members of the government, they are not members of the Conservative party, the way they’ve positioned themselves is exactly right.”
It seems many in Westminster have found it easier over the years to simply ignore Northern Ireland at best or at worst write it off as a weird anomaly within the UK. Especially in the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, once the terrorist threat on the UK mainland that accompanied The Troubles appeared to have been extinguished.
The DUP’s Dodds is keen to stress the breadth and depth of intercommunity relations these days. But he concedes: “I think that people have had the view that ‘Northern Ireland, sure, that’s all settled, we don’t need to bother with that anymore’.
“I do think there’s a bit of complacency here in Westminster. Of course, I don’t expect the population at large to concern themselves with the details of Northern Ireland when there’s much bigger issues but I do think that the political class at Westminster needs to pay more attention to what’s happening in Belfast and in Northern Ireland.”
And are they paying more attention since the general election? “Oh, I think they are now, yeah,” he smiles.
Evidence of the DUP’s new status adorns the wall of Dodds’ Westminster office – the award for negotiator of the year that he won at the swanky Spectator politician year awards just a few weeks ago. “I think I was invited once before, it’s the first time I’ve ever won anything,” he chuckles.
The award of course was in recognition of the deal struck to support the Conservative government. Ten DUP votes to ensure Theresa May can’t lose a confidence vote or a money bill in return for a tidy sum - £1bn extra spending for Northern Ireland.
Unsurprisingly, Dodds insists the money, some of which will be doled out at the forthcoming Budget, is entirely merited.
“We have come through 30-35 years of a vicious terrorist campaign. There was a severe lack of investment in infrastructure in all of that. Money was diverted to basically keep the place going.
“Our public sector is far bigger proportionately than it should be compared to the private sector. A lot of this is to do with the legacy of The Troubles.
“So, when people talk about £1bn for Northern Ireland, which is of course not just for unionists, this is only making up a small proportion of the chronic underinvestment that has gone on in Northern Ireland over decades.
“We still have a long way to go and that’s our job – to try to return Northern Ireland to the level of prosperity and economic growth that it would have achieved had we not had those terrible years of violence.”
Others disagree. The confidence and supply arrangement was dismissed as a “stitch up” by Tim Farron and slammed as a “grubby deal” by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon back in June.
Critics, including many in the Tory party such as Ruth Davidson and Tom Tugendhat, pointed in particular to the party’s position on abortion and LGBT rights as problematic. Broadly the DUP are against both.
Few MPs are willing to publicly diss the DUP now. Best not upset the unionists when 10 seats could prove crucial to building some sort of anti-Tory alliance somewhere down the line.
But the DUP are adamant they could not do business with Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, who they accuse of being sympathetic to the IRA.
Off the record, one MP describes the democratic unionists as “nice folk with nutty views.” Another who works with them admits he’s “very uncomfortable with a lot of their policies.”
Nigel Dodds insists the focus on some of their social policies is unfair. “It is frustrating when people concentrate on things which are not our priority and are not the priority of people in Northern Ireland.”
Kate Hoey backs him up. She says the way the DUP are portrayed is “absolutely completely ridiculous”.
“The media don’t give Northern Irish politicians the credit they should for keeping the faith with democracy through times when other countries would have just given up. We owe it to their politicians to respect that.
“Their influence now is perhaps someone’s way of saying ‘you deserve this’.”
Once again Northern Ireland is struggling to keep its local democracy on track with the executive in Stormont still suspended and Secretary of State James Brokenshire making the first moves towards direct rule from Westminster this week.
Dodds is convinced the current difficulties can be overcome. But in the absence of a deal in Belfast he wants Westminster to step in to stop stasis.
“We have this ridiculous position for the last 10 months where there haven’t been any ministers making decisions,” he says.
“My view would be that if we get to Christmas and there is still no agreement, direct-rule ministers would have to be put in to make decisions going forward.
“That does not mean the end of the search for devolution, I think we continue to do that and I think those ministers should act in consultation and in concert with politicians elected at Stormont and come up with polices that are reflective of what’s needed in Northern Ireland.”
Hoey suggests that in such a situation the Northern Ireland Select Committee she sits on could have some sort of beefed up role.
The committee is already gaining more attention than it has for many years given Northern Ireland’s central role in the Brexit negotiations. The first three items to be settled between David Davis and Michel Barnier are the divorce bill, the status of EU nationals and the NI border.
With the DUP politicians in Belfast bogged down in attempts to reanimate Stormont it’s the party’s Westminster representatives doing the heavy lifting on Brexit.
“We’re pleased to see Northern Ireland put right up there at the first stage of negotiations because there are special considerations since we’re the only part of the UK that shares a land border [with the EU],” Dodds says.
He insists that a settlement on the free movement of people over the border – based on the common travel area between the two parts of Ireland predating the UK joining the EU – is “virtually done”.
And on goods moving between the two he says: “If you talk to European officials and British officials there’s actually more concern now about what will happen at Dover and Calais than there is in Northern Ireland in terms of the physical arrangements.”
He reckons that the appliance of science will solve it. “Through technology, through digital means, trade will be accommodated, reports will be filed and done, but there will not be a return to border guards and customs posts and people being held up on the border, queues and all the rest of it. That won’t happen. It will be dealt with as seamlessly and frictionlessly as possible.”
But what of the not inconsiderable weight of expert opinion that has written off a satisfactory solution to the border issue as impossible? “Clearly, it’s an issue, it needs to be worked through but I’m confident it will.”
He adds: “At the end of the day there is an absolute will on the part of unionist parties, nationalist parties, all parties in Dublin and in Europe and in the UK not to have a hard border in Ireland.”
It sounds like Dodds is veering close to complacency in the face of expert opinion to the contrary.
He insists it’s just experience from a man who has won more elections than he can remember.
“I came into politics in 1985 on Belfast City Council. That was during some of the darkest days of the Troubles. My office has had a bomb placed outside it, numerous threats, I was the subject of an assassination attempt as I visited my son in hospital in 1998, many of my MP colleagues have had similar experiences.
“We’ve seen all of that and come through it to a much better place in Northern Ireland and I basically believe that eventually all these problems get worked out. There are big challenges but we will get there in the end.”
He nods, and referring to either the politics or the football but probably both, he says: “I’m an optimist, that’s the point – in Northern Ireland you have to be an optimist.”