It has been a sensational election for the DUP in more ways than one. Not only have are they on course to win 10 of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats – up from eight in 2015 – but the likelihood is that the Conservatives will need their support to govern.
Can they count on it? The answer is almost certainly yes. The DUP were among the most enthusiastic supporters of May’s premiership in the last parliament, and senior party sources indicate that it would be “correct” to assume that they would in no circumstances support a minority Labour administration. That, given Corbyn’s well-publicised links with Sinn Fein, is no surprise.
The only way the Conservatives will be able to govern effectively is with DUP support – which will likely take the form of an informal confidence and supply arrangement rather than a formal coalition.
With the abstentionist Sinn Fein on course to win seven seats, the DUP and independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon will be the only Northern Irish MPs sitting in the next parliament. The SDLP, the moderate nationalist party, have almost certainly lost all three of theirs.
What might this mean in practice? This result underlines a truth revealed by the March Stormont election: Northern Ireland, divided by Brexit, is voting along orange-on-green lines, and there is little room left for the middle ground. And that the DUP will be calling the shots – even if the Tories win a majority – augurs very badly indeed for power-sharing talks at Stormont (but well for a Brexit deal that incorporates a fudge on the Irish border).
The closeness of the government to the DUP in the last parliament led to James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, taking lines that were frankly nakedly partisan on issues such as Troubles legacy prosecutions. This, like the other points of disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein, was supposed to have been dealt with by the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015.
Brokenshire’s posturing won him few admirers among the nationalist cohort at Westminster. If Nigel Dodds ends up wielding considerable influence over the next Tory government, he will have fewer still. There is very little trust and very little goodwill left on Sinn Fein’s part towards the UK government, and, indeed, its ability to broker a deal that saves the devolved institutions.
The adversarial arithmetic created by Northern Ireland’s results will likely exhaust it. But both sides win: the DUP will wield the influence they have become accustomed to, and Sinn Fein’s line that the structures created by the Good Friday Agreement are untenable will be further bolstered.