Belfast Telegraph

Anthony Seldon: DUP had pound signs in eyes and knew bonanza it wanted

The DUP’s Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson with then-PM Theresa May and Gavin Williamson in June 2017
The DUP’s Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson with then-PM Theresa May and Gavin Williamson in June 2017

Part one of an extract from the new book by political historian Anthony Seldon charting Theresa May’s premiership looks at negotiations for a deal with the DUP. May knew this would come at a price in terms of the demands that the party would extract and the restrictions it would place on the Government’s freedom of action. What she did not foresee was its influence over her Brexit plans.

The final election result - Conservatives 317 seats, Labour 262, SNP 35, Lib Dems 12, DUP 10, Sinn Fein (not taken up) 7, Plaid Cymru 4, Green 1, Independent 1 and the Speaker 1 - was going to impact heavily on May's plan for a progressive government.

It would inevitably swing the balance of power to a handful of malcontents and ideologues on the left and right wings of the party, who knew that she would depend on their support to maintain her fragile majority that Friday.

Gavin Williamson was in his element: 'It was really exciting, an amazing opportunity to do something big. One reason I was able to have so much influence over the DUP deal was that everyone in No.10 was still in a state of shock.'

(Jeremy) Heywood was more than a match for Williamson, supported by the Cabinet Office including Shona Dunn, head of the Economic and Domestic Affairs secretariat; Lucy Smith, responsible for the constitution and devolution; and Brendan Threlfall, formerly of the No.10 private office.

They considered two possible plans: a full-blooded coalition or a confidence-and-supply arrangement, in which the DUP would guarantee to support the Conservatives on all confidence motions (thereby avoiding another general election) and on key financial measures.

Heywood clashed with Williamson, the other dominant figure in No.10 that day, on several issues. The Cabinet Secretary worried that Williamson risked being an unguided missile and was especially nervous about what he might say about a formal coalition.

The closer the eye he kept on Williamson, who was fired up about the prospects of a relationship with the DUP, the better. So he was nervous when Williamson told him, 'I'm going to Belfast.' Williamson added, 'I need a constitutional expert, a special adviser who knows about Northern Ireland, and I'm not going to pay for the flight.'

Dunn and Threlfall were enlisted to go with him ('to make sure he was properly advised'), while Lucy Smith remained the point person in London.

For political input, Williamson asked Alex Dawson - who lacked real expertise on Northern Ireland - to accompany him. He had not at first envisaged going himself, imagining a figure like David Gauke heading up the Conservatives' team, but he believed 'there was nobody else who had as close a relationship with the DUP as me and, frankly, no one else who wanted to take the risk'. One person he did not contact, however, was Jonathan Caine, a veteran Spad in the Northern Ireland Office - much to Caine's surprise.

'As one of the few people around who had experience of successfully negotiating with the DUP, I thought Gavin or somebody from No.10 might call and at the very least ask for a few tips,' he recalls. 'Not a word.'

The DUP had waited many years for such largesse to come their way.

Founded by the Protestant Reverend Ian Paisley at the height of the Troubles, it had consistently been seen as a largely negative force in British politics.

Chiefly known in England for its opposition to gay marriage and to extending abortion to Northern Ireland, it was also firmly pro-Brexit. Williamson knew that its wish to see Brexit happen, and its grave distaste for Corbyn and fear of a Labour government, would be his strongest weapons in securing a deal.

The DUP's natural allies were thus the Brexiteers in Parliament, with the caveat that they were vocal opponents of any form of border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The DUP were seasoned negotiators.

Representing an economically diverse collection of constituencies, they were united, too, in wanting far higher government spending in Northern Ireland. As other parties had ruled out the prospect of a coalition, they knew that they were the Conservatives' only prospect of remaining in office, which further emboldened them.

Arlene Foster, the DUP's leader; Nigel Dodds, her deputy; and the chief whip, Jeffrey Donaldson, greeted the news of the party of four flying over to see them with tense anticipation.

The RAF plane touched down in Belfast shortly after 5pm and the group were driven to the Northern Ireland Office in Stormont. Dodds and Donaldson kept them waiting for an hour after the time agreed for the meeting.

The London party were famished but a promised Chinese takeaway failed to materialise, with the exception of a plate of prawn crackers.

Williamson brushed aside any irritation when they eventually met sometime after 7pm, launching in with the question, 'Do you want to make this work?'

The response from the DUP was that they very much did, and after a fairly short discussion, they agreed to meet the next day with Arlene Foster to go into the details. Williamson's colleagues on the trip were struck by his 'grasp of the politics and the personalities'. A coalition government seemed the most attractive proposal to the DUP that evening, with talk of the offer of a Secretary of State position, possibly Trade, or Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The mood music was generally positive after Dodds and Donaldson rubbed home the poor performance of the Conservatives in the election, losing 13 seats, compared to their own, which saw them gaining two. After the meetings broke up at about 10pm, Williamson repaired to the bar with Dawson. Although neither had been to bed since Thursday morning, they stayed up planning till 1am A day which had begun so terribly was concluding on a more optimistic note.

Talks did not begin until 11.30 on Saturday morning, in a farmhouse owned by a DUP supporter in the village of Blackskull, 20 miles south-west of Belfast.

Arlene Foster now joined Dodds and Donaldson, but they were far less accommodating than they had been the evening before, the first flush of excitement having worn off.

'They came back in a different mood in the morning,' says one present at the talks. 'They'd spoken to their party. We hadn't really factored in their need to do so, with their various MPs and supporters outside.'

The DUP knew they had time on their side: 'We felt the clock ticking heavily all the time in our ears, the urgent need to get a positive answer back to London to stabilise the political position, but for them time was no problem at all. They just wanted to get more and more out of us,' one official says.

The DUP had pound signs in their eyes, and they knew exactly the kind of bonanza they wanted.

In the run-up to the 2015 general election, they had produced a 'Northern Ireland Plan' to be ready for post-election haggling in the event of a hung parliament.

'It was basically a shopping list … It even had the prices marked up,' one negotiator said at the time.

They began talking a lot about history, using it to justify their demands for extra money, according to one attendee: 'With the DUP, it was always about history.'

Overnight had seen a change of heart in London, too. Buckingham Palace had not been pleased.

'They were annoyed as we had jumped the gun on confidence-and-supply,' says one in No. 10.

Jeremy Heywood was not happy, and 'had got to the Prime Minister', according to one political figure involved. The implications of a coalition were his particular worry.

'You have to remove the coalition offer from the table,' May said to Williamson on the telephone. 'No, I won't,' he replied defiantly.

'You agreed to it yesterday, and my word is my bond. I'm going to leave it on the table.'

He comments now: 'I often found I had to be very blunt with her. I insisted that unless we appeared to be generous and taking them seriously, it wouldn't work.

'Jeremy was always, frankly, the best politician in Downing Street, but he could be a bugger when he didn't like something. He worked on the PM when I was away, telling her 10 times that the coalition couldn't be done.'

Rumblings were also reaching No. 10 from senior Conservatives about their unhappiness with a formal link with the DUP in any shape.

Former Prime Minister Sir John Major, who had laid the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement in 1993-97, later made his views known on the BBC, saying, 'I am concerned about the deal ... for peace process reasons.'

He worried that if the peace unravelled, the 'hard men' would return to violence: 'A fundamental part of that peace process is that the UK government needs to be impartial between all the competing interests in Northern Ireland ... The danger is that, however much any government tries, they will not be seen to be impartial if they are locked into a parliamentary deal at Westminster with one of the Northern Ireland parties.'

Among serving politicians, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was the most vocal Tory figure on the airwaves on Saturday.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the British Isles where same-sex marriage remains outlawed, with the DUP controversially using a voting mechanism designed to protect minority rights at Stormont to prevent it from being legalised.

Davidson, who'd become engaged to her partner, Jen Wilson, in May 2016, tweeted a link to a speech she had given in favour of marriage equality, noting, 'As a Protestant unionist about to marry an Irish Catholic, here's the Amnesty Pride lecture I gave in Belfast.' Davidson, emboldened by the Conservatives taking 13 Scottish seats, the party's best performance north of the border since 1983, had a frank conversation with May on the telephone.

Afterwards she told the press: 'I was fairly straightforward with her and I told her that there were a number of things that count to me more than the party.

'One of them is country, one of the others is LGBTI rights ... It's an issue very close to my heart and one that I wanted categoric assurances from the Prime Minister on, and I received [them].'

Taken from May At 10, by Anthony Seldon. Published by Biteback Publishing and priced at £25.

Part one of an extract from the new book by political historian Anthony Seldon charting Theresa May's premiership looks at negotiations for a deal with the DUP. May knew this would come at a price in terms of the demands that the party would extract and the restrictions it would place on the Government's freedom of action. What she did not foresee was its influence over her Brexit plans

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