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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 Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

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

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.