Belfast Telegraph

DUP must rise to the occasion and show it can strike credible political partnership

By Ed Curran

Now is the moment for unionism and for Northern Ireland. An opportunity not to be missed. A chance in a political lifetime not to be fluffed.

Above all a challenge to the Democratic Unionist leadership to show that it can rise above the narrow ground of Ulster and represent the interests of us all in a positive, constructive manner.

The DUP has a battle on its hands given that some sections of the British and international media seem intent on painting it as a Protestant Ku Klux Klan at the heart of Theresa May's precariously perched new government.

We should not be surprised that the party's website crashed on Friday given the degree of ignorance that even seasoned national commentators of the TV election specials showed when they discovered the DUP was holding the future of the UK and Europe in its hands.

But, just as William of Orange changed the course of Europe in 1690 by his victory at the Battle of the Boyne, now, would you believe it, Arlene Foster has it within her power to do likewise if she can form a viable political relationship with Theresa May.

"If" is the key word. Mrs May and Mrs Foster are formidable in their own right with determined, at times, uncompromising mannerisms.

The DUP leader, based in Northern Ireland, not Westminster, will need to rely on her London MPs to carry through the heavy lifting of any deal with the Tories. In that respect, her lieutenants, such as Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson and Ian Paisley, are well seasoned in the ways of Westminster and capable of handling the awkward questions of a critical London media rat-pack.

Northern Ireland is a small, sometimes overlooked, even forgotten about corner of the UK. From this day, not any more - at least for as long the Tory/DUP axis holds.

Whether the chattering classes of southern England who frequent the TV political studios like it or not, their futures rest on the shoulders of Ulster MPs with whom they would barely pass the time of day.

Northern Ireland has a reputation for punching above its weight, for example in the world of sport. The challenge to the DUP is whether it can punch above its weight in the corridors of power in London and Brussels and bring real benefits to Northern Ireland.

If Mrs May is looking seriously to help this community in return for the DUP's support, she can start by ensuring that the budgets for health and social care services are not weakened any further. The same goes for education.

These are priorities in all communities across the UK but all the more in Northern Ireland with its dependency of health and welfare services and the scattered rural nature of our society.

No doubt the DUP with its experience at the Stormont budget will have its own shopping list for Mrs May to ponder, but whatever is agreed must not narrowly reflect only one section of this community.

The DUP, having achieved such sweeping support in the General Election, has the opportunity now to rise above the sectarianism of politics here and show that unionism can represent and does care about the wider society.

Critics in the London media and in opposition parties here and in Britain will point to the extreme views and eccentricities of some DUP politicians. Thrust into the political spotlight, the DUP must show that there is much more to its brand of unionism than waving flags, beating big drums and offending those with whom it disagrees.

The Tories' hands are tied by the DUP, but even more so by many of Mrs May's own backbenchers who are worried she will act against their individual interests on Europe or other issues. If she is to fall, it will likely be her own people who will end her government while the DUP will surely seek to milk its new-found importance for as long as possible.

Mrs May has wider responsibilities to Northern Ireland than her new-found necessity for an expedient relationship with the DUP.

Any liaison is not without risks since whatever British government is in power must take full account of the Good Friday Agreement and other deals which have taken this deeply divided community to where it is today.

Mrs May has only to look at the overall result of the election here, with the DUP and Sinn Fein winning all but one seat, to know how fragile politics remain.

The reality is that there is no empathy, no apparent appetite for compromise between the two communities here who have retreated into unionist and nationalist/republican trenches in a very disturbing if not dangerous manner.

These are extremely delicate days for power-sharing and upon Mrs May's shoulders lies the responsibility to possibly make or break the Stormont Assembly and Executive. The coming fortnight is crucial for Mrs May and for the future stability of Northern Ireland as talks resume at Stormont.

The DUP have said they are committed to power-sharing and to reaching a deal with Sinn Fein. Mrs May should ask them how they propose to break the log-jam, if that is their intention.

If it is a question of funding any issues which divide the local parties at this time, she should seriously consider making a contribution. The biggest prize she could give to NI in return for unionist backing would be to find a way to restore the Stormont Executive to full working order.

On other issues, Northern Ireland needs to keep more of its young talent within its shores.

Its universities need all the help they can get as does Invest Northern Ireland by way of ensuring it is not playing second fiddle to the low corporation tax base of the Republic. Our farming industry will be decimated if the European grants are not guaranteed beyond 2020 by the Westminster government.

As a small peripheral part of Europe and the UK we are penalised quite unfairly by air passenger duty, a tax on every citizen who wishes to journey to and from one part of the UK and another. That is most unfair and surely not in the spirit of the Foster/May message to preserve and strengthen the Union.

The Irish government will look with concern on the links between the DUP and the Tories. Half a century after the Conservative and Unionist party broke up because of how another Tory leader, Edward Heath, treated unionists, Mrs May reinstates the link if only out of political expediency.

Twenty-seven years since a former Conservative Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, declared that Britain had no "selfish strategic or economic interest" in Northern Ireland, 10 unionist MPs hold the balance of power in London and the future of Brexit in their votes for the Tory administration.

The Irish question has haunted British politicians for generations. With Mrs May's premiership now dependent on the DUP, it remains to be seen what influence or role her government can have in the last-ditch efforts at Stormont to save the Executive and prevent a return to direct rule.

One positive contribution which Mrs May can make with the support of all sides here would be to soften the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and the Republic. There is common ground in so far as no one here or across this island wants a hard border restored.

The DUP along with other parties says it wishes to ensure that business and commerce, tourism and trade across the island of Ireland are not inhibited by Brexit.

Surely now Northern Ireland will have more of a direct say in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations and the DUP will ensure that is so.

A week is a long time in politics as Theresa May discovered on June 8 and Arlene Foster found also to her cost with the RHI scandal. Now, too, is the hour for the DUP to rise to the occasion, defy the sceptics and prophets of doom and show that it can strike a credible political partnership that will bring real benefits for people here.

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