The DUP: the party that’s propping up May

Theresa May has struck a “confidence and supply” deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to back her minority government. Who are they? Simon Wilson reports.

What happened?

The DUP has become the biggest political party in Northern Ireland. The unionist conservatives took 36% of the popular vote in the general election, winning ten of the province’s 18 seats. (Sinn Fein was second, with 29% and seven seats.) The election was a big success for the DUP, which is now the sole unionist party representing Northern Ireland at Westminster (there is also one unionist independent MP).

The party’s vote share jumped ten percentage points, while that of the once-dominant Ulster Unionist Party fell six points to just 10%, and it lost its only two seats. Sinn Fein gained three seats to seven – wiping out the SDLP to become the sole nationalist party at Westminster (though its MPs don’t take their seats).

Is the DUP a religious party?

It’s a unionist, rather than an explicitly faith-based party; indeed, some optimists within it believe its best hope of further electoral expansion is to attract conservative Catholics. Yet famously the DUP was founded (in 1971) by the Rev Ian Paisley, a protestant firebrand minister who regarded Irish republicanism as a Papist plot to exterminate protestantism. Paisley’s faith was so fierce he once interrupted a speech by John Paul II by shouting “I denounce you, Antichrist!”

But it’s changed its tune now?

The DUP remains heavily influenced by its religious roots: getting on for a third of members belong to the Free Presbyterian church founded by Paisley (compared with only 1% of the province’s population), though its leader Arlene Foster is an Anglican. Half its elected representatives are members of the Orange Order (and several DUP politicians have been accused of links with loyalist paramilitaries).

The party is opposed to abortion (like almost all parties in Ireland, north or south) and to gay marriage. Two-thirds of members believe “homosexuality is wrong” (Paisley once launched a campaign to “Save Ulster From Sodomy”). Even so, while the party contains plenty of out and proud homophobes, it does officially support same-sex civil partnerships.

What explains the DUP’s rise?

It is one of the ironies of Northern Ireland’s recent history that a party whose founding purpose was to reject any form of accommodation with Irish nationalists has ended up sharing power with them (albeit currently suspended). Paisley swore he’d never sit down with the “monsters” of Sinn Fein, and his was the only major party to oppose the power-sharing arrangements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But eight years later, after that very opposition had helped grow his party’s support, Paisley performed a U-turn, and took office as first minister, with Martin McGuinness as his deputy. A decade on, the DUP has transitioned into the main voice of unionism in Northern Ireland – boosted by the perceived need for one strong voice to counter the rise of Sinn Fein.

What are its policies?

First and foremost: to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland, which collapsed earlier this year over the “cash for ash” scandal – a supposedly green energy scheme set up when the first minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster was trade minister, which gave businesses large subsidies to keep wood-fired boilers going. The scheme could eventually cost the region £490m. Its other priorities include strong defence, and fostering “respect” for Northern Ireland’s British identity. Economically, the party is broadly in line with the Conservatives, though there are differences: it wants to increase the National Living Wage; increase the personal tax allowance; slash corporation tax to just 12.5%; and scrap the TV licence.

Has it got what it wants?

The party vowed to protect the winter fuel allowance and the “triple lock” on pensions – and as part of its deal to support the Conservatives in the Commons, it has already forced the May government to reverse course on both. And according to a speculative story in The Daily Telegraph this week, the price of the DUP’s continued support after Brexit will be £460m of tax cuts. 

What about Brexit?

The DUP has long been anti-EU, and campaigned strongly for Leave. This partly reflects the implacable hostility of Paisley, who saw the European Community as a Roman Catholic conspiracy and delighted in using his position as an elected MEP to stir up as much trouble in Brussels as possible. The DUP has a strategic interest in Brexit: the UK leaving the EU closes off potential future routes towards closer integration or pooled-sovereignty models in the north of Ireland that might have been possible as the EU evolves – or at least makes them much less conceivable.

Equally, the DUP is implacably opposed to any Brexit deal that grants Northern Ireland any kind of special status compared with the rest of the UK. But for economic and practical reasons it opposes any return to a “hard border” with the rest of Ireland.

The hidden costs

The deal between the Tories and the DUP, which gives the government a notional majority of 13 on key votes, will cost an extra £1bn in funding for Northern Ireland’s health service, education and infrastructure. That falls outside the scope of the Barnett formula, which adjusts what is sent to devolved governments in line with public spending, so the government will not have to stump up billions more for Scotland and Wales, too. But forcing the Tories to ditch their plan to end the pensions triple lock in 2020 could cost the UK as much as £14bn over two years (if the parliament lasts until 2022), while abandoning plans to means-test winter fuel payments may cost £8.5bn over five years, according to calculations by a sceptical Sun newspaper.

  • An extra £1bn of infrastructure spending would do NI a lot of good, but not if it comes at the price of destabilising the relatively peaceful, and still fragile, accommodation that’s been reached there in recent years. It’s an awful lot to risk, but I’m not sure what option May had other than going straight back to the country.