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16 March 2015

An alliance with the DUP will be a harder bargain than either Labour or the Tories think

The DUP may be a superficially attractive option for Labour or Conservative strategists looking to get legislation over the line - but they are far from an ideal partner.

By Ciara Dunne

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) currently hold eight seats in Westminster, out of Northern Ireland’s allotted 19 seats. They are projected to bring this up to nine at the next election. Despite this relatively small and insignificant number, the current inability of any political party to look capable of winning a majority has put them in a situation where they hope to hold some power after the next election. However Northern Irish politics is unusual and an entirely different beast to standard Westminster politics; both Labour and the Conservative Party should think carefully before agreeing to enter into a coalition with the DUP as a junior partner.

Realistically, the DUP are likely to prove a rebellious and difficult to control partner in coalition, if this should come to pass. They have built an entire following on being a party that rests on strong principles and is unafraid to stand up and defend those principles. It was through intransience rather than public co-operation that the DUP grew in popularity. They won seats in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement from the UUP who co-operated with the British government in ending the violence. The DUP was the only major political party to refuse to take part in the negotiations preceding the Good Friday Agreement and yet they have benefitted from it massively. Not only that, but they also grew in popularity despite being a major trigger in the suspension of the North Irish assembly in 2002. In the 2003 elections they gained ten seats and became the largest party in the assembly, despite the assembly remaining suspended. As such they are highly unlikely to be willingly to support their coalition partners in matters they disagree with. They are also prone to large scale, public protests rather than quiet negotiations; this will make the government seem unstable on the international stage. This could well result in a loss of confidence in the government from international actors such as global corporations who may not wish to invest in a country with an unstable government.

Many coalitions are kept alive by the simple fact that coalition partners can often be frightened of losing their seats if they trigger an early election by declaring no confidence in their own government. This is not likely to stop the DUP from doing precisely this if they decide that they must take a stand against something. Their MPs are highly unlikely to lose their seats by doing this. The major reason for this is the fact that Northern Ireland is still largely divided and many vote for the party that represents their community. There is no real alternative for unionists, and while they may lose a few votes to Alliance, realistically the party has one MP and they are unlikely to gather enough protest votes from moderate DUP supporters to actually disturb the DUP. Of the DUPs current batch of MPs, the names are easily familiar to any who might have studied the politics of the Troubles and the Good Friday agreement such as Gregory Campbell, Ian Paisley (albeit the junior) and William McCrea. They are highly unlikely to lose their seats if they rebel against the government or if they refuse to vote for legislation, instead they will be lauded for making a stand.

Finally, frankly the DUP hold some views which if in government would be embarrassing to any partner. Ian Paisley Junior in 2007 proclaimed “I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism [sic]. I think it is wrong”, a statement he justified by saying that he didn’t hate the people, just what they did. He isn’t alone in his opinions, the DUP recently attempted to add a ‘conscience clause’ to equality legislation in the Northern Irish assembly which would allow businesses to refuse to serve LGBT people. If they do manage to become a partner in a Westminster coalition government, this is likely to prove a serious challenge for their partners. After all, MPs have been forced to stand down from positions for more minor transgressions, such as off colour remarks regarding class.

None of the major parties should go into coalition unless it provides a stable, working government. It will do no good for the country or the party to be thrown into a cycle of coalition rebellions or a series of elections. Major parties should be particularly wary of the DUP who hold both strongly held views and an iron tight grasp on their constituencies which will make them a less tractable partner than other parties such as the Liberal Democrats.

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