The DUP's Westminster leader Nigel Dodds speaks in the House of Commons.
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DUP could do a deal with Labour, says party's Westminster leader

Nigel Dodds says he "can do business" with Ed Miliband and praises his responsible capitalism agenda. 

There is one prediction that most in Westminster make with confidence about this most unpredictable of elections: it will result in another hung parliament. Even with the support of the Lib Dems, Labour and the Conservatives fear that they may be unable to form a majority government. In these circumstances, the small parties acquire new significance. Among them is the DUP, currently the fourth largest party in the Commons with eight seats.

The Northern Irish party is traditionally viewed as a potential partner for the Conservatives, who considered a deal with them before the 2010 election. But when I interviewed the DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, he rejected this characterisation and signalled that he was open to an agreement with Labour.

“We can do business with either of the two leaders, either Ed Miliband or David Cameron, and we will obviously judge what’s in the best interests of the United Kingdom as a whole,” the North Belfast MP told me. “And obviously we’ll also be looking at it from the point of view of the constituencies that we represent in Northern Ireland as a whole. Unionism has worked in the past with Labour governments and we’ve worked in the past with Conservative governments back in the 70s. Indeed, the Ulster Unionist Party propped up the Callaghan administration. But it remains to be seen. We are certainly not in the pocket of either party and we’re certainly in a position where we’re able to negotiate with both of them.”

Greater protection for defence and tougher border controls

Dodds indicated that his party’s priorities in any negotiations would be greater protection for defence and stricter immigration controls. "We are not interested in a full-blown coalition government with ministerial positions and all of that. What we’re interested in is, first and foremost, we want to do what’s right as far as the country as a whole is concerned. We do believe in a strong Britain in a very troubled world. We believe, therefore, on issues like defence and security, it’s important that we put the investment in there, it’s important that we strengthen our borders, so that people have a say on Europe, for instance. All of those things matter to us greatly."

The party is demanding the maintenance of defence spending of at least 2 per cent of GDP and restrictions on welfare benefits for EU migrants. 

Abolition of the bedroom tax

In a boost for Labour, however, Dodds also demanded the abolition of the bedroom tax. "We in Northern Ireland in the Assembly have made it clear that the welfare changes have been imposed, more or less with no choice but to go along with the broad thrust of them, because to do otherwise would cost the Northern Ireland block grant an enormous amount of money. We have, however, made a provision that we will not implement the bedroom tax and there are other changes, tweaks as well. We don’t believe the bedroom tax being imposed on existing tenants is fair or reasonable and we think it’s caused undue hardship, so we would like to see that abolished right across the board."

Praise for Miliband's "responsible capitalism"

Dodds also said he had "a lot of sympathy" with Ed Miliband’s call for "responsible capitalism" and supported his demand for greater market intervention. "On the energy stuff, Ed Miliband has been right to point to the need to take stronger action on that," he said

"I just think that people rail against regulation, as if somehow it’s a bad and dirty thing in itself. The way in which energy markets work, the way in which there’s big monopolies and such power concentrated, that’s an example of where I think you have to step in and say ‘so far and no more’. You have to be able to step in and do what’s right and the constant siphoning off of major profits and issues like not responding quickly enough to falls in prices, that all needs to be tackled much more robustly than it is at the minute."

He added: "The DUP is seen sometimes as right-of-centre. We’re right-of-centre on many issues but we’re not right-of-centre when it comes to these issues of how the market should operate in terms of how society should work. We believe there’s a strong role for supporting people and for government to step in when necessary to do that."

Dodds told me that Miliband’s recent visit to Northern Ireland went "extremely well" and praised his support for the devolution of corporation tax to the country." The visit went extremely well, it’s the difference between the television persona and how people see you when they meet directly. I think people were reasonably impressed with him.” He praised Ivan Lewis, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, who he said had done "a very, very good job" and would make "an excellent secretary of state".

Criticism of Cameron over Northern Ireland

Dodds was critical, however, of David Cameron’s lack of engagement with Northern Irish issues. "Our view is that the Prime Minister should and could have been more engaged in Northern Ireland over the course of the parliament than he has been. He’s left it very much to Owen Paterson, first of all, and now Theresa Villiers. Certainly from our point of view, the Prime Minister could have been much more engaged in Northern Ireland issues and it’s been to our regret that he hasn’t been more involved."

The full interview with Nigel Dodds appears in this week’s New Statesman, out on Thursday.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage