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. 

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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 assistant editor of the New Statesman.