Belfast Telegraph

DUP deal with May could boost chances of reviving Stormont Assembly

By Jon Tonge

There may be just a little time left, perhaps, for some grandstanding in the time-honoured Northern Ireland politician fashion. Maybe some further milking before we get the announcement of the DUP's arrangement with this hapless, weakened government.

But, by the time you read this, it's possible that the big DUP-Conservative deal (and those parties are listed in order of importance) will be done.

Any big announcement - and the deal may officially be more circumspect than dramatic - will be accompanied by DUP insistence on how all of Northern Ireland will benefit. This is not unreasonable. Who - unionist, nationalist or neither - could possibly object to more money for schools, hospitals and roads?

The fabled election magic money tree has finally been found... in Belfast.

Lots of people on this side of the water, 'informed' by an internet search, 'social' media and our fine Press, will reel with shock at the brevity of detail and the lack of key DUP demands.

Where are the plans to imprison anyone in England in a same-sex marriage, burn down the abortion clinics, make Ulster-Scots compulsory in all our schools, hold a DUP-UDA loyalist cultural/paramilitary festival in Tunbridge Wells, replace St George's Day with Twelfth fortnight and, back home, drive Orange parades down the Falls, returning via Short Strand?

The DUP membership certainly possess some 'robust' views, and the party farms some lively constituencies, but they were never going to be trusted with the London shopping trip. Far better to let Arlene and Nigel empty the shelves and return with all the goods.

It is win, win, win for the DUP.

There has been over-cautious concern that the DUP should not 'overplay its hand'. But that hand is huge. The Conservatives - regardless of who is in charge - need the DUP far more than the DUP needs the Conservatives.

If the DUP said no (one of the organisation's great talents, historically) Theresa May - forever remembered as the leader who mislaid her majority - would face another election within months. Given that May has just managed to run a campaign that made the DUP's Assembly effort last March look masterful in comparison, we know what a second election might mean for the Conservatives.

But no cash, just Corbyn, doesn't look a great prospect for the DUP either.

Far better to set up the equivalent of a regular Conservative government direct debit to Northern Ireland. Rolling cash for infrastructure projects? Yes, please.

Plans to cut corporation tax and air passenger duty, along with creating a fund to attract private investment are thoughtful, possible ways of stimulating the economy.

They can be used without the risks associated with a drop in tax take if the Conservatives guarantee more funding for the region's social services. David Cameron's 2010 identification of Northern Ireland's need for private sector investment remains relevant for his successor, but she can offer money to help, rather than Cameron's chiding.

The DUP's initial concern with purely economic items on its shopping list provides an easy win. The modesty of a 'confidence and supply' voting arrangement - a mere flirtation for a party claiming to believe in traditional marriage - means that the DUP can withdraw at any time without penalty.

The DUP is fireproof electorally. That might sound strange after its March debacle, but the lesson of both elections within unionism this year is that of UUP impotence.

That party cannot get its vote up.

Given that communal voting is alive and strong as ever, the DUP can easily risk an association with the Conservatives without a penalty accruing. The concerns of Sir John Major over the lopsided deal are curious.

His reliance - always denied - upon unionist support in the mid-1990s contributed to the temporary reversal of the peace process.

Maybe he is speaking from experience in warning of the dangers. But this is not 1996, the Provos are not waiting to attack Canary Wharf, and there have been two decades of relative peace.

Major always insisted he was not neutral on the Union (there's a slight clue in the Conservative and Unionist title of his party), and the Conservative Party has never been an even-handed broker between two sides anyway.

There are threats to the Good Friday Agreement, but the biggest is from Brexit, which makes a nonsense of the current wording of Strand 2 of the 1998 deal, heavily predicated upon joint membership of the EU.

The institutions of Strand 1 are precarious, but Sinn Fein, having collapsed the Executive, appears interested in its reassembling. A prospect of direct rule with an Orange tinge can concentrate the mind.

A revived Executive - with more money to spend - might offer a counterweight. Whether the DUP will want to jump back into the bed from which it was expelled is open to question, but there are 28 DUP MLAs with salaries to get and mouths to feed, so probably yes.

A deal on the Irish language is eminently realisable, a co-operative approach of minimising the border under Brexit probable, and a softening of Sinn Fein's hostility to Arlene Foster possible.

If there is no Assembly rule, any Orange tinge to direct rule might be light.

On one of the numerous return free shopping trips to Downing Street, Arlene and Nigel might eventually ask about the investigation rate (but not the conviction level) of British soldiers during the Troubles.

They might also gently raise the status of the Parades Commission ('dysfunctional', 'Charades Commission', 'anti-Protestant,' according to old DUP).

But equally, the DUP might not. For the next year, it'll be too busy counting the money.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest To Power (Oxford University Press)

Belfast Telegraph


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