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Managing DUP mavericks could prove to be party's sternest test

Tom Kelly

What I hope is in five years' time, I can go to the British people in the election and say - lots of you doubted that coalition politics worked, but it has worked."

These were the now infamous words of the former Liberal Democrat leader and now redundant MP, Nick Clegg.

Oops! I forgot to mention he was also the former deputy Prime Minister too. Of course, he was correct, his coalition government worked very well, for the senior government party, the Conservatives.

As for the Liberal Democrats, they got ate up and spewed out by the Tories who targeted them in the 2015 General Election. The Liberal Democrats went the way of other coalition newbies in the Republic of Ireland such as the Progressive Democrats and the Irish Labour Party. To be crude about it they were as disposable as spent family planning devices.

Of course coalitions work but the pain for such administrations is always disproportionately borne by the minority partner.

Now for the first time since 1979, when the independent nationalist Frank Maguire went to parliament to 'abstain in person' and the SDLP's Gerry Fitt voted against the incumbent Labour administration, Northern Ireland votes at Westminster actually count. The actions of the Northern Irish MPs back then brought down the Labour Government and triggered a general election. Perhaps not the wisest of moves by two nationalists as it heralded the coming of Margaret Thatcher, who went on to be probably the most reviled political figure in Ireland since Oliver Cromwell.

The votes that count this time - are not those of Irish nationalists but the 10 seats of the socially conservative but economically pragmatic DUP.

Sinn Fein, having successfully conquered the SDLP at the recent Westminster election, have simultaneously signed on for their expenses, posed for a photo call and left their seats empty.

This leaves the DUP in the driving seat at Westminster, where welfare reform, agriculture and Brexit are big-ticket items. The new arithmetic at Westminster doesn't just mean that northern nationalists are literally left speechless but it also means that the DUP seats are crucial to the stability of the Conservative Government.

If Arlene Foster believed in the tooth fairy, Santa Claus and unicorns, she couldn't have asked to be gifted with a better opportunity than to pull strings in Whitehall. Who would have thought that such deliverance would have come along through the hubris of the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and his entourage? Sinn Fein's little skirmish in May to rout the DUP from the First Minister's post was ill thought out.

It managed to scare the middleclass gardening prods of Bangor and Ballyhackamore and the cabal of loyalist quasi-paramilitaries straight into an unholy alliance, which entered the DUP stable on a scale never witnessed before. This has turned Arlene Foster Lazarus- like into the unionist version of Rocky Balboa, Wonder Woman and Joan of Arc.

The British press for the first time in 30 years have now taken an unhealthy interest in Northern Irish politicians - or, as they have been described in various outlets, Irish unionists.

It makes for uncomfortable reading for DUP members and it's excruciatingly embarrassing for everyone else. To describe the DUP as socially conservative would be an understatement; its like calling Lily Savage colourful.

The DUP has to expect this type of scrutiny. Their history is their history and its more warts and wrath than hugs and heart-warming. But to portray the DUP as the Clampetts of British politics would be grossly unfair. Peter Robinson did much to modernise that party and partly succeeded.

The DUP, like Sinn Fein has proven to be ruthlessly pragmatic and self-serving.

They have dropped Free Presbyterian shibboleths when they became too embarrassing and some have even taken to the Devil's buttermilk with the enthusiasm of the O'Donovan brothers in a scull race!

For 10 years in the Executive, the DUP successfully ran rings around their partners in government, leaving Sinn Fein to play tag-along. Its doubtful if the Sinn Fein leadership ever envisaged the DUP playing kingmakers at Westminster. Sinn Fein's claim that Westminster is irrelevant to nationalists in Northern Ireland is both weak and ridiculous, now that the DUP is in pole position on issues over the border, security, budgets and of course Brexit. Why did Sinn Fein rush their MPs to Westminster this week if not to try to win some backdoor kudos via the media? In the coming months nationalist interests will need more than a few Sinn Fein photocalls.

Much speculation has been made of whether a DUP 'confidence and supply' agreement would last with the Tories.

Many commentators and those wishful thinkers amongst republicans, think not. But their analysis does not stack up. Firstly a bruised, battered and busted Prime Minster bereft of political allies and who has the campaigning skills of David Brent is unlikely to want to face the electorate anytime soon.

Secondly, if and when the Tories do pull the rug on Mrs May, they too will want the full term to run.

Thirdly, Jeremy Corbyn has proved himself to be a first class campaigner; he loves the adrenalin from elections and having thrown the kitchen sink at him, the Tories would prefer to watch his fruit wither on the vine during a five-year term than to take him on again.

And what of the DUP? Well they too, albeit for different reasons will not want to rush back to the polls. The unionist community reacted well to the scare of Sinn Fein's electoral success in May 2017 but like voters anywhere, they too can suffer election fatigue.

Contrary to much commentary the practical heads of Foster, Dodds and Donaldson will want to focus on the socio-economic benefits they may gain from an informal understanding with the Government. Matters like parades, the Troubles' legacy and reforms to the Executive will be happily kicked into the 'talks' limbo.

Of course that would be the plan but some DUP MPs and MLAs like to overreach their grasp and that could be their undoing. The madcap contributions to the media on equality matters, flags and cultural identity, climate change and creationism will have to remain within the DUP's Pandora's box.

Managing those DUP members who could be best described as maverick will be the DUP's greatest challenge and May's greatest risk.

The mainstream media will now stalk the DUP for evidence that it really can't be trusted at the highest levels of government. But if the DUP don't over play their hand, don't rub the noses of nationalists in the dirt and don't fall foul to crazy demands by loyalists, they have an opportunity to make a one-time fringe party, mainstream.

That's worth buttoning a few lips!

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