Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster's focus on cash not sash is a win-win for DUP and all of Northern Ireland

Party's 10 MPs are currently worth a cool £150m each ... and their earning potential can only increase, writes Jon Tonge

So, just over a fortnight of grandstanding before the inevitable DUP-Conservative deal emerged. It was almost rushing things by Northern Ireland standards.

To think there were some people who actually took seriously those "deal in doubt" headlines in a few newspapers. It was always going to be a case of "no bungs, no government" from the DUP.

RIP the Barnett Formula.

It was never a needs-based formula anyway. And it has been replaced by a needs-must one: £1.5bn, thank you very much. No wonder Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had a wry smile on his face when dismissing reports of £2bn as wide of the mark.

As equally predictable as the deal itself was the guff and nonsense with which it was accompanied.

"Unique circumstances of Northern Ireland" was a personal favourite - as if everyone was unaware, until circa 4am on election night, that the region has had a somewhat troubled history.

A close second in the risibility stakes was the line spun by the respective parties that the deal was good news for everyone within the Union - as if the first waking desire of your average UK taxpayer was to plough yet more money into Northern Ireland.

The deal really is win-win-win for the DUP's 10 MPs, worth £150m each (and rising).

It provides a lot of cash for Northern Ireland, is not (despite some erroneous reports to the contrary) explicitly conditional upon the restoration of devolution and delivers to Sinn Fein an awkward choice over whether to restore the Stormont Executive they collapsed last January.

Sinn Fein may very well be tempted to put Humpty back together again - at least for now. The DUP gets the cash and Sinn Fein spends it. What's not to like?

Sinn Fein can hardly oppose money for decongesting Belfast, or challenge the arrival of ultra-fast broadband, or fight the arrival of new hospital wards.

More finance, even from the Brits, would be favourably received by many Sinn Fein supporters.

And Sinn Fein would retain the option to walk if they felt nationalists were not getting a fair share of DUP booty.

The ostensibly difficult Stormont issues are not insurmountable.

They were very close to agreeing an Irish Language Act (not of that name, but of that ilk) with the DUP before Theresa May decided to mislay her majority. A soft border Brexit approach had also been outlined as Executive strategy.

Same-sex marriage cannot be blocked by the DUP alone, although the TUV's Jim Allister and some UUP MPs might back a DUP petition of concern.

This leaves the difficulty of Sinn Fein having said - with (unwisely, perhaps) no obvious wriggle room - that they would not work with Arlene Foster as First Minister.

Given that the verdict into the RHI debacle is probably a year away, that's a long time to refuse to acknowledge Foster's claim to the post.

Assuming the DUP leader isn't going on leave, Sinn Fein will have to explain why, after all, they can get along just fine with Fermanagh's finest.

In terms of "historic compromises", though, it will hardly be up there with Good Friday, or St Andrews.

Although the DUP wisely concentrated upon cash rather than sash issues, there may be trouble ahead in several ways - and I don't just mean finding room to accommodate the London media at the La Mon House Hotel this autumn, when the DUP holds its annual conference.

For the DUP may yet supply trouble as well as confidence to a beleaguered Conservative Government.

The section under Legacy gives a strong hint of DUP concerns and the pressure upon prosecutors not to bring cases against British forces in respect of actions during the Troubles is much more overt than it is subliminal.

Parliamentary arithmetic may get tighter. A few by-election losses for the Conservatives and the market value of those 10 DUP MPs gets bigger; £1.5bn might just prove the downpayment, or holding deposit.

The deal will be reviewed in terms of its aims and implementation after each parliamentary session.

You can add price tag to those terms of reference - and it will be the DUP doing the adding.

If the DUP's financial ambitions can be sated, there is always the risk the party begins batting on stickier wickets on behalf of some of its core constituencies.

The Parades Commission has been described by the DUP leader as "completely dysfunctional".

So, will a body described in such withering terms be left unscathed?

Or will the DUP, in its new powerful role as maker and breaker of governments, risk an attempt to change, or remove, the commission's role?

There is also the slight risk to the DUP that relations with the Conservatives toxify the DUP and cost the party support.

Given its slender, one-seat Assembly lead over Sinn Fein, an unpopular alliance could be costly if Sinn Fein again triggered a snap Stormont election (yes, another).

Although, on current electoral evidence, there is more likelihood of Sammy Wilson joining the Green Party than the UUP stealing a swathe of DUP seats, it would only take minor DUP losses for Sinn Fein to be providing the First Minister.

So far, so good, for the DUP, though.

The party kept its focus economic, the price high and the rewards ongoing.

Onwards to the next crisis.

  • Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power

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