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.

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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 is the New Statesman's political correspondent.