It has more MPs than Ukip and the Greens combined, more than the SNP and more than Plaid Cymru – but the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has attracted none of the attention those parties have received in recent months. That, Nigel Dodds hopes, is about to change. Another hung parliament is now almost certain and the party’s Westminster leader could play a decisive role in determining whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband commands a majority in the House of Commons.
“We are certainly aiming to hold the seats that we have [eight] and possibly add one or two more,” the 56-year-old Belfast North MP tells me when we meet at his parliamentary office. The DUP has historically been viewed as a potential partner for the Conservatives, who considered a deal with it before the 2010 general election. But Dodds rejects any accusation of favouritism and suggests that he is open to working with Labour.
“We can do business with either of the two leaders, Ed Miliband or David Cameron. We will obviously judge what’s in the best interests of the UK as a whole,” he says.
Dodds, who tells me that the DUP is “not interested in a full-blown coalition government”, indicates that his party’s priorities in any negotiation will be greater protection for defence spending, stricter border controls and an in/out referendum on the EU.
“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; it’s important that we strengthen our borders and that people have a say on Europe, for instance.” To these right-wing causes he adds another priority: the abolition of the bedroom tax, which has “caused undue hardship”.
The demands are designed to position the DUP between Labour and the Tories and to dispel the notion that it is preoccupied with “pork-barrel” spending for Northern Ireland.
Miliband recently visited the area – a trip that Dodds says went “extremely well”. After rebuking the right’s “market ideologues” in a recent piece for newstatesman.com, Dodds expresses sympathy for the Labour leader’s “responsible capitalism” agenda. “On the energy stuff, Ed Miliband has been right to point out the need to take stronger action,” he says. “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 issues of how the market should operate. We believe there’s a strong role for supporting people and for government to step in where necessary to do that.”
The Irish government is said to fear that the potential reliance of a Westminster government on the DUP could undermine the Northern Irish peace process. Dodds dismisses the argument, noting that it has not been applied to Sinn Fein after a recent poll surge in the republic. “Nobody is making the case that you couldn’t have Sinn Fein in the Irish republic because that would upset the Unionists . . . Any suggestion that the whole thing could founder or falter on the basis of some kind of relationship between the DUP and Westminster doesn’t have any basis in reality. It simply wouldn’t happen.”
Dodds warns that he is not prepared to consider revoking the province’s ban on abortion and gay marriage as a condition of any agreement. “We have to respect devolution . . . This is an issue on which politicians in England and elsewhere need to be very careful that they’re not imposing their views on the people of Northern Ireland as represented by both sides of the community in the Northern Irish Assembly.”
I end by asking him whether Kenneth Clarke was right when he joked before the last election, “You can always do a deal with an Ulsterman.”
“Yes, I think you can do a deal,” Dodds replies swiftly. “I think Ulstermen and -women have proved in Northern Ireland that they can do a deal with each other. People are sometimes a bit sceptical about the Northern Irish parties.
“Remember, Northern Irish parties have come together to do a deal for the future, which many thought was impossible. And it has stuck.”