Rather unexpectedly, the DUP has become the focus of British politics. Yet it is a party few outside Northern Ireland know much about. Sophie Whiting reveals some of the characteristics of its members, and outlines how the party may negotiate a pact with the Conservatives. Ultimately, she argues, it’s not just the DUP but the dynamics of politics in Northern Ireland that have now taken centre stage.
Northern Ireland, so often viewed as a place apart from the rest of the United Kingdom, now has its political parties at centre stage. Firstly, Sinn Féin do not take their seats at Westminster and therefore alter the arithmetic for the government to win a majority (from 326 to 322). Secondly, with an increase in their Westminster seats (from 8 to 10), the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are set to support Theresa May in a minority Conservative government. It is quite remarkable that a party with only 1.5% of Westminster’s MPs has such an influential role to play in the outcome of this surprise election.
The DUP are a devoutly unionist and right-wing party, and crucially the only ‘natural’ ally from which the Conservatives could seek support. This has left the DUP with a very strong hand in bartering a price for such support, whatever form this will take. For a party that is not well-known outside of Northern Ireland, this has raised many questions about who the DUP are and what would they want from some kind of arrangement in support of the Conservatives?
DUP leader Arlene Foster. Credits: DUP (CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)
Our research on the DUP in 2014 outlined some views of the party’s members: two-thirds think that homosexuality is wrong; 73% oppose the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland (which has different abortion legislation to rest of UK); while only 4% of party members describe themselves as being non-religious. Finally, the top political priority for DUP members is to secure Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. In an age of Brexit negotiations and threats of border polls, this priority takes on a heightened sense of importance.
Unlike the 2015 election, there was little countenance this time round of a hung parliament. As a result, there was next to no media discussion of any possible post-election deals. But what is known about the DUP is their ability for long-term strategy and efficiency. It is therefore unlikely that a scenario like this would not have been considered. However, it is vital to consider the current political context in Northern Ireland to fully comprehend what the DUP would want to gain from a deal with Theresa May.
Despite Northern Ireland voting Remain, the DUP were the only major party to campaign for Brexit, arguing that leaving the EU would strengthen the United Kingdom. Yet ironically, the unique position of Northern Ireland having a land border with the Republic of Ireland, and therefore the EU, has meant that for some nationalists the partition of the island of Ireland no longer made political or economic (and to some extent practical) sense. Particularly amongst Sinn Féin, the Brexit result signalled a need for a border poll on Irish unity. From either perspective, the nature of the border has become central to political stability and economic growth. It will therefore be essential that Brexit does not restrict trade and limit the movement of people between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Making up only 3% of the UK’s population, Northern Ireland certainly needed to shout louder in order to make its voice heard in deciding the nature of Brexit. Having a sway in the new government means that the DUP have now been given a vital opportunity to shape Brexit and also take the credit as working in the best interests for Northern Ireland. Membership of the EU also brought financial benefits to Northern Ireland in order to support projects and infrastructure associated with the peace process. There is no doubt that more money for Northern Ireland would be at the top of the DUP’s wish list in exchange for their support in the House of Commons.
Finally, the collapse of Stormont and the absence of devolution in Northern Ireland alters the relevance of the DUP’s role in supporting Theresa May. As the party of government, the Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would be the neutral facilitator of talks to get devolution back up and running. However, the DUP’s support for the Conservatives at Westminster would alter the dynamics of these discussions between Northern Ireland’s parties and sets to heighten the tension in an already fraught and distrustful process.
Whether, and how, the DUP are able to have a significant influence on the government is yet to be seen. Yet, what is clear is that the DUP have managed to present themselves as the party to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the union. As more on the politics and demands of the DUP is gradually being revealed, this election has ensured a focus on the dynamics of politics in Northern Ireland, not on this occasion a place apart.
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Note: This article originally appeared at our sister site, British Politics and Policy. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Sophie Whiting – University of Bath
Sophie Whiting is Lecturer in Politics in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.
The most remarkable, and shocking, thing about the DUP is that it could have supported Brexit (the DUP was the only party apart from UKIP which campaigned for Brexit). Just when Northern Ireland was happily returning to peace and prosperity and Irish nationalists were able to feel relatively at ease within Northern Ireland because of the open border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, the DUP chose to support Brexit which distances the UK from the EU, including the Republic. I find it sad that a party which is supposedly based on Christian beliefs should support Brexit and so undermining the peace process. Its support for Brexit also threatens the integrity of the UK which the DUP claims to wish to strengthen.
This article is couched in a reasonable tone – but is it telling that, like some of the more shrill (bigoted?) critics of the DUP, the only policy points noted are:
… and Brexit ?
While Brexit is vital to the UK for its democracy and economy, the first two are rarely a priority amongst most people – yet seem an obsession with a particular group of commentators.
It would be far more illuminating to read about the DUPs views on more of:
– the role of government (big? small?)
– democracy (House of Lords, voting systems etc)
– security over terrorism vs personal freedom
– red tape and regulation generally
– “solving” the NHS
– “solving” social care
– education (vocational, academic, selection, curriculum etc)
– agriculture, food and environment
“While Brexit is vital to the UK for its democracy and economy, the first two are rarely a priority amongst most people – yet seem an obsession with a particular group of commentators.”
It’s funny isn’t it? When a party wants to deny groups of citizens their basic rights and cause misery in the process people tend to complain. A real mystery.
Do you know for certain that the DUP has a “Policy” on abortion ?
A search reveals that an awful lot of outlets make assertions about a generalised DUP “Policy” – but curiously a search of recent DUP Manifestos for the word “abortion” reveals nothing, zero, nix.
DUP manifestos lead on the stuff I listed.
Perhaps most DUP members – as individuals – favour tight rules on abortion.
Some articles cite a single DUP member as opposing all abortions – but some (many) English Catholic MPS do so too …….
In short, it seems that the Commentariat are using a minority interest stick to frame and trash the DUP.
Why not call them “racist” and shut them down all-together !!!
Is this for real? They’ve constantly voted against reform of the abortion legislation in the Assembly and used every delaying tactic going to try and keep it off the agenda. It isn’t in their manifesto because Northern Ireland already has strict abortion legislation.
Your approach here appears to be that you know nothing about the party but ran a quick word search and concluded everyone who does know something about the party (that is, anyone who pays any attention at all to Northern Irish politics) must be wrong. That’s hopelessly silly.
You are missing the point.
Abortion is not a “core issue” for most people. It is not the defining issue – and shouldn’t be so for any arrangement with the May Government.
Yet all we hear are shrill voices condemning the DUP for this side show.
As for people who “know something about the Party” … in recent years I have learnt not to trust most second-hand reports about a Party’s policy or what a Spokesman is alleged to have said.
Mis-reporting, mis-framing, mis-representing seems to be the norm these days !
Unless one lives in NI, why would most mainlanders track local policies.
It would be more helpful if commentators educated rather than sensationalise.
There is nothing “silly” in asking for better information.
For the record, I would favour unrestricted abortion for the first few weeks. I do not put more weight on “potential” for a cluster of inviable cells than the wishes of the woman.
But things become problematic from around 20 weeks.
But I digress.
I’ve heard more about the DUPs main economic policies on today’s SKY news than on the vast majority of recent anti-DUP pieces.