I’d be interested to know what percentage of the British public had heard of the DUP before Thursday. It was probably a very low one.
In short, the Democratic Unionist Party are the more right-wing of Northern Ireland’s two main unionist parties – that is, the two parties who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. It is led by Arlene Foster and currently has 10 MPs.
Called ‘friends’ by Prime Minister May this week, they do have quite a lot in common with the Conservative party. They’ve supported Tory laws in the past and voted for the triggering of Article 50 a couple of months ago. In addition, the Tories have relied on their support previously, so it looks like the two parties are quite compatible. However, the alliance could throw up a number of problems.
First of all, it helps to know some context about politics in Northern Ireland (I’ve written a blog post here). The country is highly religious, and a divided place. Also, the nation has been without a government since the start of the year (I’ve written another post), as the devolved government at Stormont must contain both a Unionist and Nationalist party. Talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein (the biggest Nationalist party) are ongoing and have been stalled by the election campaign. However, by uniting with the DUP, the British government is at risk of looking like it favours one side over the other. It puts the Good Friday peace agreement in jeopardy and could greatly increase tensions.
Then there’s the price of a deal; the DUP are unlikely just to do one out of the goodness of their hearts! Likely demands will probably include more money for Northern Ireland and perhaps some assurances that will give them the upper hand over the Nationalists.
Also, whilst the Conservatives have a lot of common ground with them, they also have their fair share of differences. The DUP want to keep the triple lock on pensions, whereas the Tories just want a double lock. Similarly, whilst the Conservatives want to means test winter fuel payments, the DUP seem less keen. The result of all of this will probably be a slimmed-down version of the Conservative manifesto and Queen’s speech. However, I just can’t see this lasting very long, and I think it will get to the point in a few months time when the two parties still don’t agree on enough, and any confidence and supply agreement will come to an end, leading to another General Election.
Also, there’s the DUP’s stance on social issues to consider. The party is closely affiliated with the Protestant church and has blocked gay marriage from being legalised in the past. It is also anti-abortion and as a result the procedure is currently illegal in Northern Ireland. These could prove the biggest stumbling block for negotiations. There’s already been protests outside Downing Street against the Tories uniting with them on these grounds, and prominent MPs such as Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson have also voiced their concern. Many Tories feel deeply uneasy about any formal deal with Foster’s party for this reason.
To summarise, the Conservatives have a lot of common ground with the DUP, and it’s probably the party in the UK that they are most closely affiliated with. However, on some issues, they are a long away from each other and how well they deal with their differences is likely going decide how long this government lasts.