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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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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