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The scariest thing about the DUP? They're clever enough to make their deal work

The party won't attack social legislation and will use its position to prove unionism works.

The DUP are masters of message discipline. Not for nothing has it been dubbed a “politburo party” by Northern Irish journalists. But now, uncharacteristically, it is losing the air war. In recent days the backlash against the DUP’s social conservatism has won several of its MPs – and the party itself – the sort of viral infamy it studiously avoids.

Their own words on issues like abortion and LGBT rights have been weaponised by those who believe a Conservative deal with the party – an offshoot of the hardline Free Presbyterian Church – could threaten legal protections for women and minorities. A petition against the confidence and supply deal has been signed by more than 700,000 people.

One 2007 quote from North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jr – son of the party’s founders – crops up again and again. “I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism,” he said. “I think it is wrong.” (He has since said he has "grown up" and has “huge respect” for people of all social backgrounds.) For some this very utterance, and others like it, is evidence enough that the Conservatives will stage a bonfire of equalities legislation to placate their new partners.

Owen Paterson, one of David Cameron’s Northern Ireland secretaries – a position for ministers he did not rate but could not sack – unwittingly stoked similar fears last weekend when he suggested on the Today programme that there “might” be a vote on lowering abortion time limits in the next parliament “as medical science advances”.  

His heavily-caveated conjecture took on a life of its own. Although he is no longer on the government payroll, his words were taken as gospel. “Tory minister on #r4today says they will have a vote on reducing time limits on abortion in exchange for DUP support,” read one tweet shared more than 4,000 times. Arlene Foster’s party has made no such demand. Depressingly, they do not need to: the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act do not extend to Northern Ireland.

Similar leaps of logic online have obscured just how prosaic the substance of the deal is likely to be. In a message to his 1.2 million Twitter followers, the Channel 4 News anchor John Snow suggested the DUP would “demand the unbanning of sectarian marches” as part of its deal with the Tories. Though a branch of the loyalist Orange Lodge has expressed hope that the party would make the contentious issue of parading a priority in negotiations, the party has not done so.

Why? Ironically, it is the much-maligned Paisley – in 2017 not so much a loyalist infant terrible but instead a thoughtful and conciliatory member of the DUP's top brass – who provides the best answer to this question. The party is not interested in fire and brimstone authoritarianism but instead, as Twitter pictures of the grinning MP welcoming the opening of a new motorway in his constituency show, wants bang for its parliamentary buck in the form of infrastructure and inward investment for Northern Ireland.

Its relationship with the Conservatives will likely be much duller, and much more transactional, than the unsavoury quotes that have been dredged up suggest. Expect nothing on loyalist flute bands but plenty about the triple lock on pensions. The lists of demands the DUP prepared ahead of potential coalition negotiations in 2010 and 2015 prove that much: nowhere do the social issues causing today’s backlash figure but demands for the protection of universal benefits and increased defence spending do.  

This is no surprise for those familiar with the modern flavour of the DUP’s unionism. Its interest at Westminster will not be in parochialism or massaging sectarian prejudices for the sake of it, but in proving the UK works for everyone in Northern Ireland. Its leading lights at Westminster, Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson, are accomplished bargain-drivers and no rabble-rousers.

Implausible though it sounds for a party most popularly associated in the rest of the UK with the uncompromising Presbyterianism of the elder Paisley, attracting socially conservative Catholics and nationalists who would not necessarily vote for a united Ireland – suddenly a live issue post-Brexit – was a key plank of the strategy of former leader Peter Robinson, who retains key influence behind the scenes and oversaw its stunning victory in Belfast South.

As the only Northern Irish party that will take its seats in the next parliament, the DUP’s MPs will cast themselves as defenders of a cross-community, rather than solely Protestant and unionist, interest. Nowhere will this be clearer than on Brexit, where their influence will likely help avert the imposition of a hard border with the Republic.

And though much been made of clause 5 of article 1 of the Good Friday Agreement – which states the UK government must be "rigorously impartial" in its dealings with the unionist and nationalist communities – a DUP approach that improves the lot of the country as a whole might well provide the party with all the evidence it needs to prove its arrangement does not contravene it.

Many have taken frit at the possibility of a Tory arrangement with the DUP. There is ample reason to do so, and every reason to fear that tensions will end up inflamed and Stormont will remain mothballed. But few on the left have considered the scariest proposition of all: that the DUP are clever enough to make this arrangement work.

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

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.