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The Conservatives will pay a steep price for relying on the DUP

The much-maligned Northern Irish party's positions defy stereotype, and could incur the wrath of Tory backbenchers - derailing May's Brexit plans.

Theresa May has confirmed that the Conservatives will rely on their “friends and allies” in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party for a majority in the next parliament.

That concession rounds off a spectacular night for Arlene Foster’s party, who increased their tally of seats from eight to 10 – and will now be the only Northern Irish party sitting in the Commons (Sinn Fein, who do not take their seats, won seven of the remaining eight, with independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon making up the numbers).

So what might this mean in practice? The DUP were among the most enthusiastic advocates for Brexit, but that is not to say they share the priorities of the hard leave wing of the parliamentary Tory party.

Its leader Arlene Foster – who since leading her party to a historically poor result in March has undergone a remarkable transformation from liability to asset – has said as much, and very explicitly indeed. “No-one wants to see a ‘hard’ Brexit,” she said last night. “...We need to do it in a way that respects the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, and, of course, our shared history and geography with the Republic of Ireland.”

And so the DUP will not countenance a dilution of Northern Ireland’s integral place inside the UK, such as the special EU status proposed by nationalists. But it also will not and cannot accept a Brexit that imposes a hard border or excessive economic disruption on the island of Ireland.

Unionists in the North are wont to dismiss calls from Irish politicians like Leo Varadkar, who will succeed Enda Kenny as Taoiseach later this week, for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU single market as a special case. But in practice they want the same thing - for their island to remain, for the most part, completely economically integrated.  

In this respect, the left’s broad-brush characterisation of the DUP as the Tories’ Ukip wing on steroids is much too blinkered to reflect the complexity of the relationship to come. On the Irish question – one of the European Commission’s top three negotiating priorities – May is now outflanked both by Brussels and her parliamentary allies.

Paradoxically, her reliance on this one set of Brexiteers – who will do all they can to seek the softest of exits – will embolden the subversive instincts of the Eurosceptic old guard within her own party. So on the very issue with which May defines her premiership, the presence of the DUP will exacerbate rather than soothe her parliamentary headache over Brexit.

The party’s economics are much wetter than media caricatures would suggest. The likely need for financial inducement will drive a bulldozer through Tory manifesto commitments such as abolishing the triple lock on pensions, the bedroom tax, and hasten the abandonment of austerity. They may well demand the replacement of EU grants in full by central government. Little wonder that NS contributor John Bew once likened the Northern Irish parties’ attitude to public subsidy to “the SNP on crack”. It is unlikely to reassure those who derided the supposed redness of May’s Toryism during the election campaign. Though the parliamentary arithmetic is reassuring, any stability will prove very illusory indeed.

So too in Northern Ireland, where many - especially women and minorities - could pay a high personal price for the Conservatives’ reliance on the DUP. If there was a slim possibility that HM Government would intervene and extend the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, it has now gone. Governments have been here before. Though much has been made of the ideological synergy between the Tory right and DUP, this was a price Gordon Brown’s government was willing to pay in order to secure the passage of anti-terror legislation in 2008. It has been almost two years since Belfast’s High Court ruled that Ulster’s restrictive abortion laws breached human rights. Now more will pass before there is any substantive reform.

The same can be said of equal marriage, which the DUP repeatedly blocked at Stormont using the assembly’s petition of concern mechanism. The party’s attitude towards the issue was expressly criticised by Martin McGuinness, the late deputy first minister, when he resigned in February. There had been a quiet consensus at Stormont that the Northern Ireland Office would do much of the heavy lifting on the culture clash issues that divided the two parties, such as equal marriage, and legislation on the Irish language, so as to ensure neither appeared culpable to their respective bases.

Now Sinn Fein has all the incentive it needs to play to its own. A Republican source told me last night result meant Northern Irish politics had been “changed utterly”. They are right. The restoration of an executive – which the DUP leadership is keen to facilitate – is now even more implausible, and in nationalist eyes HM Government’s ability to act as an honest broker in negotiations has completed evaporated.

But given the fragility of May’s majority – and the febrile atmosphere within the Tory ranks – the price of DUP cooperation may well be the collapse of government at Westminster, as well as at Stormont.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.