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Our friends in the North: inside the mindset of the DUP

7 min read

Wondering what to expect from the DUP? Mark Leftly gets chapter and verse from politicians who have had direct dealings with Northern Ireland’s power party

The Democratic Unionist Party’s website crashed on 9 June. Having failed to secure an overall majority at the previous day’s general election, speculation was mounting that Theresa May would have to forge a deal with the DUP in order to pass legislation. 

The joke around the Palace of Westminster was that lobby hacks had caused the website failure because they were all scrambling to read the DUP’s Westminster manifesto online, having previously ignored Northern Irish politics. 

But there might also have been quite a few Conservative politicians reading up on the 10 DUP MPs on whom they will soon be so dependent. 

And those MPs, plus their leader, former Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster, are proving to be stubborn negotiators. By the time of Wednesday’s slimmed down Queen’s speech, a confidence and supply deal still had not been agreed, amid complaints from DUP sources that the party’s support “cannot be taken for granted”. 

Rumours swirled that the party’s price for propping up a Conservative government was £1bn for Northern Ireland’s NHS, the same amount for infrastructure, and additional defence spending. Although the financial price would be high, many MPs were relieved that there was no talk of imposing socially conservative policies on abortion and gay rights. 

Senior Conservative backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg smiled as he reflected when interviewed on the BBC over how the power-sharing agreements that have characterised Stormont seem to have sharpened the DUP’s tactics in Westminster. Shortly after the Queen’s speech, he said: “The DUP are very experienced in these sorts of negotiations, that’s how Northern Ireland politics works.” 

One senior minister adds: “I expected the DUP to demand everything from spending on roads to maybe even a new airport. I would if I was them.” 

The House has spoken to a range of politicians who have had direct dealings with the DUP to better understand a party that only overtook the Ulster Unionist Party as Northern Ireland’s largest unionist faction 13 years ago, yet now hold the balance of power in London. 

There is something of a consensus that the DUP has been unfairly demonised by the press because of its opposition to abortion and same-sex relationships. These views are arguably the result of the party’s links to the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, founded by the DUP’s late former leader Rev Ian Paisley in the 1950s. 

A Conservative who served on the Northern Ireland Select Committee says he “always enjoyed” his time with DUP members. 

Oliver Colvile, who was the parliamentary private secretary to Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire until he lost his Plymouth Sutton and Devonport seat this month, says: “I always found them very easy – I got on incredibly well with [DUP business and environment spokesperson] David Simpson, I got on well with [culture, media and sport spokesperson] Ian Paisley [Jr]. 

“They’re very sectarian. They’re actually quite a mix of Conservative and Labour party types.” 

A former Northern Ireland shadow minister agrees, arguing the DUP’s policies on welfare and pensions, such as resisting attacks on the winter fuel allowance and maintaining the ‘triple lock’ on calculating retirement pot increases, are “quite similar to the Labour party”. 

Both of those policies were ditched from the Queen’s speech, with the DUP unlikely to break its manifesto pledges and back the government on these particular votes. 

The source adds: “They’re quite a peculiar mixture. They will support May, but it won’t be open-ended support. They’re decent people, but they are hard negotiators.” 

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats’ Northern Ireland spokesperson, adds the DUP will not support bills that jeopardise its “working class base” and damage their reputation for “not being establishment politicians”.

Colvile adds that this means the DUP’s likely bargain could result in major regional funding changes. He says: “The DUP are keen to make sure loyalists are looked after financially. That will be the big issue going forward and that may necessitate reform of the Barnett formula.” 

The Institute of Welsh Affairs has argued that any additional funding for Northern Ireland would involve “very costly” spending in England, Scotland and Wales that the Westminster government would find difficult to afford. 

More likely is a ‘Barnett bypass’, which Scotland has used on occasion to secure additional funding above the Barnett consequential increase. The other regions might then gain a less-than-proportionate benefit. 

May, though, will have to carefully judge what to give Scotland, given the huge popularity of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and the Scottish government’s agitation for a second independence referendum. Welsh secretary Alun Cairns is also pushing for additional spending on Wales as a condition of the DUP deal. 

A former Northern Ireland secretary, Labour’s Lord Peter Hain, says he recognises the tactics of the DUP’s delayed negotiations. He argued: “They are very resistant to deadlines – they see a deadline and that’s like a red rag to a bull – and these negotiations are a fine example of that. I’m not surprised these talks are taking longer than the prime minister, or the Queen no doubt, would have wanted. 

“The way they have been painted is almost like they’re Neanderthal and that’s very far from the truth. They’re professional and tough, and although they’re very much a Protestant party for Protestant people, they’ve moved [politically] a great deal over the past 20 years, especially their last 10 in ruling with Sinn Féin until power-sharing collapsed this year.” 

However, a former shadow Northern Ireland spokesman says that although the DUP has “all the young people fizzing with ideas and energy” in Northern Ireland, the party “will struggle to maintain energy and discipline in Westminster” given its concerns are over the sea. 

The source warns that, because the DUP’s support only offers May an effective majority of around 13, the Conservatives “won’t have slack” given DUP MP voting records tend to be low. 

For example, it emerged last year that Paisley Jr and East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell voted only 37.07% and 31.78% of the time respectively. The party said at the time that their MPs were also taking part in committees and other meetings that were not included in the statistics. 

The DUP’s political opponents, though, are scratching their heads over whether the Conservatives need to worry so much about a deal. Although the voting record is low, they think this is likely to improve so as to make sure that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn does not get any closer to 10 Downing Street. 

Margaret Ritchie, the former leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party, says: “Apart from English votes for English laws and some aspects of the European Union referendum, they tended to vote with the Conservatives anyway.” 

Instead, she thinks any deal could “accentuate tensions” between Remainers and Leavers in the Conservative party given the DUP’s argument for a hard Brexit, bar the retention of a “frictionless border” with the Republic of Ireland and the Common Travel Area. The Westminster manifesto shows just how firm a line the DUP holds over Brexit, criticising the EU’s “deafness” to arguments for change and that its campaign to leave was “based on principle and practicality”. 

What’s clear, then, is that this is a party that will look to squeeze every penny it possibly can out of the Conservatives, but is likely to stand firm on any issue that could alienate the support it has assiduously accumulated over the past two decades. 

May once prided herself as being a “bloody difficult woman”. In Foster and the DUP, she might well have met her match. 

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