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The scariest thing about the DUP? They're clever enough to make their deal work

The party won't attack social legislation and will use its position to prove unionism works.

The DUP are masters of message discipline. Not for nothing has it been dubbed a “politburo party” by Northern Irish journalists. But now, uncharacteristically, it is losing the air war. In recent days the backlash against the DUP’s social conservatism has won several of its MPs – and the party itself – the sort of viral infamy it studiously avoids.

Their own words on issues like abortion and LGBT rights have been weaponised by those who believe a Conservative deal with the party – an offshoot of the hardline Free Presbyterian Church – could threaten legal protections for women and minorities. A petition against the confidence and supply deal has been signed by more than 700,000 people.

One 2007 quote from North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jr – son of the party’s founders – crops up again and again. “I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism,” he said. “I think it is wrong.” (He has since said he has "grown up" and has “huge respect” for people of all social backgrounds.) For some this very utterance, and others like it, is evidence enough that the Conservatives will stage a bonfire of equalities legislation to placate their new partners.

Owen Paterson, one of David Cameron’s Northern Ireland secretaries – a position for ministers he did not rate but could not sack – unwittingly stoked similar fears last weekend when he suggested on the Today programme that there “might” be a vote on lowering abortion time limits in the next parliament “as medical science advances”.  

His heavily-caveated conjecture took on a life of its own. Although he is no longer on the government payroll, his words were taken as gospel. “Tory minister on #r4today says they will have a vote on reducing time limits on abortion in exchange for DUP support,” read one tweet shared more than 4,000 times. Arlene Foster’s party has made no such demand. Depressingly, they do not need to: the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act do not extend to Northern Ireland.

Similar leaps of logic online have obscured just how prosaic the substance of the deal is likely to be. In a message to his 1.2 million Twitter followers, the Channel 4 News anchor John Snow suggested the DUP would “demand the unbanning of sectarian marches” as part of its deal with the Tories. Though a branch of the loyalist Orange Lodge has expressed hope that the party would make the contentious issue of parading a priority in negotiations, the party has not done so.

Why? Ironically, it is the much-maligned Paisley – in 2017 not so much a loyalist infant terrible but instead a thoughtful and conciliatory member of the DUP's top brass – who provides the best answer to this question. The party is not interested in fire and brimstone authoritarianism but instead, as Twitter pictures of the grinning MP welcoming the opening of a new motorway in his constituency show, wants bang for its parliamentary buck in the form of infrastructure and inward investment for Northern Ireland.

Its relationship with the Conservatives will likely be much duller, and much more transactional, than the unsavoury quotes that have been dredged up suggest. Expect nothing on loyalist flute bands but plenty about the triple lock on pensions. The lists of demands the DUP prepared ahead of potential coalition negotiations in 2010 and 2015 prove that much: nowhere do the social issues causing today’s backlash figure but demands for the protection of universal benefits and increased defence spending do.  

This is no surprise for those familiar with the modern flavour of the DUP’s unionism. Its interest at Westminster will not be in parochialism or massaging sectarian prejudices for the sake of it, but in proving the UK works for everyone in Northern Ireland. Its leading lights at Westminster, Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson, are accomplished bargain-drivers and no rabble-rousers.

Implausible though it sounds for a party most popularly associated in the rest of the UK with the uncompromising Presbyterianism of the elder Paisley, attracting socially conservative Catholics and nationalists who would not necessarily vote for a united Ireland – suddenly a live issue post-Brexit – was a key plank of the strategy of former leader Peter Robinson, who retains key influence behind the scenes and oversaw its stunning victory in Belfast South.

As the only Northern Irish party that will take its seats in the next parliament, the DUP’s MPs will cast themselves as defenders of a cross-community, rather than solely Protestant and unionist, interest. Nowhere will this be clearer than on Brexit, where their influence will likely help avert the imposition of a hard border with the Republic.

And though much been made of clause 5 of article 1 of the Good Friday Agreement – which states the UK government must be "rigorously impartial" in its dealings with the unionist and nationalist communities – a DUP approach that improves the lot of the country as a whole might well provide the party with all the evidence it needs to prove its arrangement does not contravene it.

Many have taken frit at the possibility of a Tory arrangement with the DUP. There is ample reason to do so, and every reason to fear that tensions will end up inflamed and Stormont will remain mothballed. But few on the left have considered the scariest proposition of all: that the DUP are clever enough to make this arrangement work.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA