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The DUP has gone from party of protest to party of power

The DUP may be the ugliest of brides for the Conservative Party but its MPs are not a danger to the peace process.

Within hours of last Thursday’s exit poll projection of a hung parliament, Google Trends reported a huge uptick in searches for the Democratic Unionist Party. With ten MPs, its best ever performance, it falls upon Northern Ireland’s largest party to prop up Theresa May’s government in what is being called a “confidence-and-supply” arrangement (as distinct from a formal coalition). As an exiled Ulsterman in London, I have found it an unsettling experience to hear the acronym “DUP” whispered anxiously in what I had come to regard as safe spaces.

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been hammered for giving succour to the IRA during the worst years of its violent campaign. Now the boot is on the other foot and the Labour Party is swinging it into the DUP-shaped kidneys of May’s much-chastened and diminished government. Ulster “whataboutery” has landed on the mainland. What about 2010, when Labour lost its majority and Gordon Brown sought to make a pact with the DUP in order to stay in office? Repeat ad nauseam.

There are murky elements to the DUP’s past when it comes to extremism; including, on occasions, a troublingly ambiguous attitude to loyalist terrorism. During the Troubles, loyalist paramilitaries were often critical of the DUP for hyping them up and then hanging them out to dry.

However, it is the DUP’s 21st-century crimes of deep social conservatism that have provoked most outrage among millennials. These include the party’s opposition to gay marriage and support for tighter abortion laws. Several senior Tories have warned about the dangers of being seen to endorse views that could toxify the party’s brand. Chief among them is Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, without whose 12-seat gain in Scotland there would be no Tory government at all.

One of the many unexpected outcomes of this election is that the whole Union is back in play. The DUP is the biggest party in Northern Ireland, and has all but wiped out its more moderate rivals the Ulster Unionist Party, which was once the dominant force.

At the nationalist end of the spectrum, too, Sinn Fein delivered what might be the final death blow to Labour’s traditional sister party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), by gobbling up its two remaining seats at Westminster.

It is a tragic irony of the Northern Irish peace process that it has been reduced to sectarian head-count politics. This was partly, it has to be said, a product of the British government’s eagerness to bring in the extremists who threatened to derail the peace process on its flanks.

In recent years, the Protestant electorate has shown periodic signs of rebellion against the DUP for crass provincialism and incompetence. But when faced with the prospect of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party at this election, the elusive middle-class “garden-centre Prods”, whose children are educated in English and Scottish universities, put their scruples aside and turned out in droves.

Thrust into the national limelight, the DUP will not purge itself of arcane and bilious views on sensitive social issues overnight. Yet the party leadership has no interest in sacrificing itself on the altar of religious scruple. Jeff Dudgeon, the founder of the gay rights movement in Northern Ireland, suggests they are gradually softening their line on some of these matters, albeit at a torturous pace.

Last year, the DUP raised no objection when gay pardon legislation – for those convicted when homosexuality was still illegal – passed through the Northern Ireland Assembly. A recent study by the academics Jon Tonge and Raul Gomez suggests that only 17 per cent of DUP members who joined the party since 1998 did so because it “suited their Protestant values”. More importantly, DUP strategists are acutely aware that many of their newest voters will stay away if the party overdoses on sectarianism as it has done in the past. It is the preservation of the Union, says its leader, Arlene Foster, that provides the “guiding star”.

What does the DUP want, and how stable will its arrangement with the Conservatives be? Its first priority will be to keep Jeremy Corbyn out of No 10. On this, the leadership and the base are united. Foster was eight years old when her father, a part-time police officer, crawled into the kitchen of their family farm having been shot in the head by IRA gunmen who targeted their home. A few years later, her school bus was blown up by the IRA, because the driver was a part-time soldier. Or consider Nigel Dodds, the MP for North Belfast. In 1996, when his seven-year-old son was being treated for spina bifida at the Royal Children’s Hospital, the IRA took the opportunity to shoot the policeman guarding the infant ward. One of their bullets hit an incubator.

And yet, for all this bitterly contested history, the DUP has been on a journey since 1998. It has knocked out moderate rivals but, in reconciling itself to the Good Friday Agreement, it has also stolen their clothes. It has learned to work with Sinn Fein, which has been on a remarkable journey, too. Above all, the DUP longs for the restoration of devolved institutions. Having opposed power-sharing for decades, it is now able to say, with some justification, that it is Sinn Fein which is the main obstacle to that.

The DUP cannot blame anyone but itself if millennials view it as a band of swivel-eyed bigots. But the truth is that it has always been a grouping of arch-pragmatists.

While they are aware that Northern Ireland already benefits handsomely from the Treasury, they will seek more for infrastructure and the NHS. They oppose Tory manifesto proposals on the removal of the “triple-lock” guarantee for pensioners and means-testing winter fuel payments. And although it supported Brexit, the DUP wants a soft border and a good working relationship with the EU. The party of protest has become a party of power.

They may be the ugliest of brides for the Conservative Party but they are not a danger to the peace process. 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.