Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Loss of party's role as Tory kingmaker begs question of where the DUP stands now

Holding on: Nigel Dodds MP
Holding on: Nigel Dodds MP
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Are the DUP's best days gone? It's a question many will pose amid the loss of the party's kingmaker role at Westminster.

Boris Johnson's spectacular own goal in telling numerous former Conservative ministers that they are no longer actually Conservatives means the DUP no longer ensures a government majority.

Arlene Foster's party certainly enjoyed its 26 months in the sun. Northern Ireland collected a billion pounds without Stormont ever passing Go.

The Confidence-and-Supply deal provided vital money for schools, hospitals and broadband to which no citizen could object.

It pleased unionists of different shades - only 3% objected - and no one on either side of the political divide was heard urging Westminster not to bother with the fiscal transfer.

If anyone thinks the money was loose change, look at the rage it engendered within the Scottish and Welsh governments. Both were incandescent over the driving of a coach and horses through the Barnett funding formula for the devolved nations.

The DUP negotiated sensibly, avoiding getting involved in sectarian demands.

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An otherwise friendless Conservative government had to sheepishly justify the money on the grounds of the "special circumstances" facing Northern Ireland - as if these had only surfaced in 2017.

The downside for the DUP has been the spotlight turned upon the party. It has been forced to defend its social conservatism, attitudes to republicans and conduct of its elected representatives to an unprecedented extent.

The party lost battles on abortion and same-sex marriage at Westminster, outmanoeuvred and isolated.

Meanwhile, the main Brexit concern of the DUP has not been removed.

Following the parliamentary drama this week, it is just possible that Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement, complete with Backstop, may achieve the greatest recovery since Lazarus, being brought back into parliamentary play.

Yet the game might not be up for the DUP.

On current polling evidence - and much can change - the likeliest general election outcome would be a Conservative minority government, or one with a small majority.

If that transpires, step forward again Nigel Dodds et al.

A confidence and supply arrangement would be a necessity and readily negotiated with a Boris Johnson government. Needs must for the Prime Minister. And one billion from the 39 he is threatening to withhold from the EU would be possibly found.

Given a possible Conservative wipeout in Scotland, it may be difficult for Johnson to win big, if at all.

Another deal with the DUP might be his best-case scenario. It's the DUP's best hope for sure.

The price of a minority Labour government backed by the SNP would be a second independence referendum - one which would increase the pressure for a border poll in Northern Ireland.

I'd expect unionists to win that - but as we all now know, the first referendum is never the end of the story.

How might the DUP fare at the general election? Making bold pre-election predictions is an easy way to turn an academic career into early retirement.

There weren't too many people saying DUP 10 seats, Sinn Fein 7, prior to the 2017 election.

Although the two main unionist parties will lock horns in South Antrim, a DUP-UUP pact elsewhere ought to be straightforward.

This will give the UUP a clear run and a chance in Fermanagh and South Tyrone - but I wouldn't take a short price - and offers the DUP the prospect of holding North Belfast.

The DUP's demise in the north of the city has been long predicted given changing demographics, but Nigel Dodds has held on grimly with a consistent vote share, usually between 45-47%.

Much of South Belfast is not natural DUP territory, but it wasn't when Emma Little-Pengelly won in 2017. Alliance will surely go much closer than then, when it underperformed given the nature of the constituency, but will still require plenty of SDLP and UUP transfers, of an order seen at the EU election earlier this year.

The UUP is now very weak in Belfast, but that does not automatically turn its backers into Alliance supporters, particularly at a Westminster contest.

The DUP might also be vulnerable in East Belfast.

Naomi Long's 2010 success against Peter Robinson tended to be hailed as a special circumstances victory, given subsequent Alliance defeats.

However, Assembly and local elections within the constituency since indicate broader changes, with a growth of the centre ground and some shift from unionism.

That said, the DUP's Gavin Robinson will start a strong favourite.

Any constituency loss for the DUP in Belfast might even be offset by a gain in North Down. The DUP has been working hard targeting the constituency after coming so close last time.

So there is much to consider for this November's probable contest. And if the election doesn't produce a majority government, we might do it all again sometime in 2020. Enjoy.

  • Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power and The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party? (both Oxford University Press)

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