Belfast Telegraph

Why it's vital that Foster secures deal that benefits all in Northern Ireland

The DUP should concentrate on obtaining increased public spending for Northern Ireland in ongoing discussions with the Conservatives rather than pursue its own sectional interests

Arlene Foster with Theresa May and James Brokenshire at the recent Balmoral Show
Arlene Foster with Theresa May and James Brokenshire at the recent Balmoral Show

By Rick Wilford

In the wake of the fiasco, otherwise known as the Conservative election campaign, Theresa May stated in Downing Street that the country needs 'certainty' and that she, propped up by the DUP, would provide it. At that point I fell off the sofa. Minority governments in the UK are uncertain affairs and rarely, to coin a phrase, strong and stable.

There have been six occasions since 1910 when a general election failed to produce an outright victory for a single party, most recently in 2010, a situation that led to the formal coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. In the remaining five cases - January 1910, December 1910, 1923, 1929 and February 1974 - minority government followed and none lasted a full Parliamentary term.

While this record is less than assuring, it doesn't necessarily follow that the emerging relationship between the Tories and the DUP is fated to unravel in a matter of months. On the other hand, the idea that it could survive for five years seems Quixotic.

The lack of certainty that has characterised previous minority governments is, in 2017, accentuated by a number of factors, not least whether Mrs May can survive the post-mortem that her party will conduct into its campaign, including her own performance.

Reliance on a gimlet-eyed stare, the repetition of vacuous slogans and a semi-presidential campaign style that seemed at odds with her own character was utterly ill-judged. It all contributed to the perception that we have a Prime Minister incapable of connecting with the electorate. Rather than appearing as a 'bloody difficult woman', she presented as brittle, ill at ease and as someone unwilling to, or incapable of debating with her opponents.

She concluded her Downing Street 'speech' by stating, 'Now, let's get to work'. Well, that begs a number of questions. No 10's in-tray is already stuffed with the looming Brexit negotiations. To those, she now has to add a hastily and significantly revised Queen's Speech - expect it to be content-light - for delivery on June 19, the very day that formal negotiations with the EU get under way.

And while the European Commission has its negotiating ducks in a row, the UK's negotiators resemble a flock of headless chickens.

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Now, of course, she also has to preside over a deal with the DUP which, together with the other local parties, is due to renew talks over the restoration of devolution today.

In addition, she has to form a government and turn her attention to trying to manage anger and dispiritedness within her own party, conscious that the vultures have begun to circle.

The idea that her party, which has a history of swiftly despatching losers, will give her an open-ended opportunity to contend with this inflated agenda is, I suspect, a triumph of hope over experience.

The idea that she can limp on for five years, reliant on a confidence and supply relationship with the DUP, staggering from one Parliamentary vote to another, is risible - all the more so given the sheer magnitude of the Brexit negotiations.

Moreover, whatever her own cunning Brexit plan was, and the campaign threw no fresh light on the matter, it is now in a dustbin somewhere in Whitehall, as is the nuclear option of 'No deal' as an alternative to a 'bad deal'.

And, given that she has no mandate because, pro tem, she heads a minority government, the House of Lords is not shackled by the Salisbury Convention which obliges peers not to oppose a government's manifesto commitments. Managing the upper chamber, which includes only a minority of Tory peers, is likely to prove even more difficult than managing the Commons.

I doubt that Mrs May will last until the autumn Conservative party conference. There will likely be a leadership contest in the very foreseeable future but not, I suspect, another general election - the turkeys-voting-for Christmas rule applies here.

Instead her successor will, if he or she has any nous, engage much more openly with all other parliamentary parties to seek agreement on a Brexit deal - that means compromise and consensus, not the abrasive 'My way or no way' approach adopted by the current occupant of No 10.

Such consensus-seeking is good politics, even though it will anger the arch Brexiteers in the Tory party. It will also provide clarity to the electorate, rather than the pig in a poke currently on offer, and carry greater legitimacy in the negotiations with Brussels.

This approach is easy to state but by no means simple to deliver.

Most immediately, the terms of trade between the Conservative party and the DUP have to be agreed, assuming they can be. (Its illiberalism on equal marriage and abortion, both devolved matters, will be no hindrance to any deal.)

The DUP is no stranger to pragmatism - at least on some issues. Whatever suppleness it can muster has to pass two key tests. First, by persuading the Tories that it will be a reliable partner in the division lobby, both by expressing confidence in the government (the vote on the Queen's Speech is the first opportunity to do so) and endorsing its budgetary/supply proposals. Secondly, and even trickier, it has to convince the electorate here that its shopping list will not exert a disparate impact on any section of our community.

In particular, Sinn Fein will scrutinise any deal for the slightest whiff of partiality on the DUP's and the government's parts. Any perception of bias will only consolidate the view within the wider nationalist community that the UK government cannot act as the neutral arbiter of the impending talks process. In the altered circumstances of the election aftermath, it may be prudent to appoint an independent chair to orchestrate those talks.

Though with just three weeks to resolve the outstanding matters, this option seems less than feasible.

The DUP will be on much safer ground by confining itself to attracting more public spending and investment in Northern Ireland and, above all, in employing its considerable leverage to render the border as frictionless as possible, a goal it shares with all other parties, north and south.

Successful special pleading for more expenditure that benefits the whole of NI is one thing. Though, because we already benefit more from the Barnett formula than the Scots and the Welsh, they would be justifiably upset, but any perceived partiality in its allocation would be disastrous. Whatever the DUP's demands are, including some symbolic re-commitment by the government to the integrity of the Union, No 10 will also exact a price - perhaps insisting that the DUP drops its commitment to retaining both the triple lock on pensions and the winter fuel allowance, and abandons its call for the abolition across the UK of the 'bedroom tax'.

Time will tell if there is a deal and what it contains, but time is very limited.

There is a week before the Queen's Speech, a period that will also see the renewal of talks here.

If by June 29 the latter fail, then a fresh Assembly election or direct rule beckons and, though the latter option is, in the current context, even less palatable than normal for the UK government, I think it's the likelier outcome.

Given the delicacy of our political situation, the NI Office will, however, be reluctant to usher in a period of highly pro-active direct rule, at least in the short-term - the UK government has enough on its plate without adding another helping of trouble.

Rick Wilford is Professor of Politics at Queen's University, Belfast

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