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.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel