When Theresa May called for a snap general election in order to increase her mandate for the Brexit negotiations, I don’t think many people quite expected for the results that we woke up to on the morning of the 9th June 2017. A hung parliament – a parliament in which no political party has enough seats to secure an overall majority. Theresa May in all her arrogance pursued this election for purely selfish reasons and in defense of those who voted for Brexit or not in the EU referendum, she took the electorate for granted assuming they would willingly vote for her and her party in spite of the attacks on social care, because she believed they would buy into the ‘strong and stable’ rhetoric her leadership has been spewing.
The Tories have managed to secure 318 seats in Westminster; thus, failing to secure the magic number of 326 seats to gain a majority. They had in fact lost 13 seats – an embarrassing defeat for a woman who was so confident in winning this election by a landslide. So what is Theresa May to do? Every other party with any sort of credibility has turned their backs on the Tories, all for except one – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Everyone in Northern Ireland probably guessed that a possible alliance between the Tories and the DUP could be on the cards once they seen the exit poll results and what do you know, people in Northern Ireland have better hindsight than the rest of the UK. However, I don’t think anyone could have envisaged a coalition government between the two, as for all the Tories flaws, they’re not quite as bad as the DUP. As the old saying goes, you sleep with a dog, expect to catch its fleas.
John Major back in 1992 as well as David Cameron in 2015, both ruled out going into coalition with the DUP, even though both administrations had small majorities. They both declined to pursue the coalitions for different reasons; however, if this proves anything, it shows that Theresa May is possibly the second worse Tory Prime Minister (Thatcher still takes the crown) we’ve seen in the last few decades.
Now what has been hilariously and at times slightly worrying, is the lack of awareness and knowledge as to who the DUP are to those in the UK who reside in England, Wales and Scotland. Social media has been awash of people wondering who they are and asking some very concerning questions regarding the party’s politics, and rightfully so, they should be concerned.
So let’s start with a brief history lesson – the DUP’s formation. The father of modern-day Unionism, Dr. Ian Paisley, a Protestant fundamentalist, who was initially a member of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP); however, he left and decided form his own party because he thought the UUP were not anti-Catholic enough; thus, in 1971 he founded the DUP during the height of the Troubles. The party had opposed the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and until 2005, the DUP remained the second largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland. However, after the signing of the 2006 St. Andrew’s Agreement and the subsequent assembly election, the DUP became the largest party in Northern Ireland and Ian Paisley became the First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness becoming the Deputy First Minister in the power-sharing government.
The DUP have had two successive leaders since Paisley retired, Peter Robinson (2008-2015) and Arlene Foster (2016-present). They are currently the largest party in Northern Ireland, they holds ten seats at Westminster and 28 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The party also has one seat in the European Parliament, where its MEP, Diane Dodds, sits as a Non-Inscrit.
It’s no secret to those of us who are familiar with Northern Irish politics that the DUP do not have the most friendliest and inclusive policies, and that’s putting it lightly. Since it has been announced that the Tories would make a coalition pact with the DUP, the media have been putting the Unionists under severe scrutiny, going over the party’s manifesto, controversial beliefs, paramilitary connections, shady financial dealings, alleged corruption, and so forth. People outside of Northern Ireland are shocked and in disbelief that such a party exists, and it even further confounds them that they operate on a mainstream basis in devolved politics.
So let’s attempt to break-down key aspects of who the DUP are for those who are not familiar….
Ideology: The DUP are a far right-winged party that has strong connections with the Orange Order. It’s membership very much reflects it’s core belief system. According to a study conducted in 2014, 34.6% are members of the Orange institution. The Orange Order, which dates back to 1795, is a Masonic-style brotherhood sworn to maintain the Protestant Ascendancy. Its name is tribute to the Dutch-born Protestant king William of Orange who defeated the army of the Catholic king James VII & II in the Williamite War in Ireland (1688-1691). Its members wear orange sashes and celebrate the Battle of the Boyne (1690) every year with marches on the 12th July. The function of the Orange Order is to maintain links with Ulster loyalism to Britain and it is often associated with sectarianism, triumphalism and supremacy. It is this ideological culture that causes strife between the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist community and the Irish/Nationalist/Republican community, as the former often do not wish to compromise on issues relating to identity and culture that have sectarian connotations.
Religion: The vast majority of the DUP are members of the Free Presbyterian Church with just under a third of them (30.5%) coming from the denomination. The church was founded in 1951 by Rev. Ian Paisley and describes itself as fundamentalist, calvanist, evangelical and separatist. Like other forms of Christianity, it believes in creationism and that the earth is only 6000 years old, something that the DUP and their members wish to be taught in schools. The church is also strongly opposed to homosexuality and abortion. To put this into context, the 2011 census recorded that there were 10,068 Free Presbyterians in Northern Ireland – just 0.6% of the total population. That means this small minority has been yielding unbending influence over Northern Irish society; thus, inflicting their religious beliefs on a majority who predominately wish for a more progressive and secular politics.
Paramilitary Affiliations: The DUP has had strong links with certain Loyalist paramilitary groups for quite some time. Peter Robinson, ex-DUP leader and former First Minister to the Northern Ireland Executive was a member of the group the Ulster Resistance (1986), a Loyalist collaborative movement of the UVF, RHC and UDA, who had the aim to procure arms. The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) is still in operation today and remains closely linked to the DUP. In September 2016, it was announced by Arlene Foster that a £1.7 million investment in east Belfast was to be managed through a group linked to the UDA. Jimmy Birch, the boss of the UDA and close associate Dee Stitt, both hold senior positions in Charter NI which the Northern Ireland Executive Office had hand-picked to manage the massive investment of public money. In addition to this, the numerous scandals and violent incidents involving the UDA has brought much criticism to the DUP’s close association with the illegal organisation. Not only is this bad governance in terms of lack of transparency and unethical, it also highlights the hypocrisy of the DUP in regards to constantly berating the connection between Sinn Féin and the IRA, when they’re just as guilty.
Scandals and Alleged Corruption: Like a bad stink, scandals follow the DUP wherever they go. NAMA, Red Sky, Irisgate, and the ‘dark’ Brexit money are just to name a few. The most recent one which led to the dissolving of the Northern Ireland Executive earlier this year and a snap assembly election, is that of the botched RHI ‘cash for ash’ scheme. The failed energy renewable heating incentive that is set to cost the public purse almost £500 million and was overseen by Arlene Foster of the DUP, the then-Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who failed to introduce proper cost controls, allowing the plan to spiral out of control. What was more concerning in the aftermath of the scandal was that many of those who were benefiting from the scheme were connected to the DUP through association, or worse, were family members and friends to prominent DUP members.
Policies: The DUP have often pursued or failed to pursue policies that have been out of step with public opinion. Their stance on the Marriage Equality Act that would enable the LGBT community to legally marry in Northern Ireland has been a major issue for a number of years. The DUP have been manipulating the ‘petition of concern’ clause in blocking the bill going through the assembly. Additionally, women’s reproductive rights concerning abortion and the liberalisation of the current laws has long been staunchly opposed by the DUP. At present, you can still be criminalised for having an abortion in Northern Ireland unless the mother’s life is in danger; thus, you can be penalised for having an abortion even in the case of rape. Further to this, the DUP are ardent Climate Change deniers, believing that it is a conspiracy to undermine agriculture practices and to promote more expensive renewable energy sources.
Diplomacy and Tone: This is something that the DUP seriously lack and for most people in Northern Ireland, it’s one of the most embarrassing things about them. I don’t think they would know how to be respectful or tactful even if it was spelled out to them. They have callously said insensitive and offensive statements concerning many groups in society – LGBT community, ethnic minorities, the Irish community, women, and countless others have been subject to their ridicule. All you would need to do is do a simple google search to find something to make your jaw drop. Sammy Wilson’s statement on mother’s breast-feeding in public is a prime example of this, as he compared it to ‘exhibitionism’.
Brexit: The DUP were the only political party in Northern Ireland to advocate for the UK to leave the EU. Even other Unionist parties seen the sense in ‘remaining’ due to Northern Ireland’s special circumstances and geographical location. Furthermore, Northern Ireland had voted by 56% to remain in the EU; therefore, if the DUP are to become a part of the coalition government, their own Brexit stance does not reflect the wishes of those in the political sphere or the majority of the general population in the region.
One question that I often came across online was the confusion as to why people would vote for the DUP if they are so horrible and if there were any alternative parties. There is no easy answer to this question, politics in Northern Ireland is very tribalised and sectarian between the ‘green’ and ‘orange’ communities that reside in the region. Slowly but maturely, since the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the two extremes of these tribes, Sinn Féin and the DUP, have become the main two political parties of the region. However, it is important to make the distinction between these two extremes. As we’ve already established, the DUP are a far right-winged social Conservative Unionist party loyal to Britain, whereas Sinn Féin is a Socialist Irish Republican party that aims for a United Ireland who also have ties to the paramilitary group the IRA. Furthermore, although Sinn Féin are considered an extreme on the political scale in Northern Ireland, they do have in fact a very progressive, inclusive and forward-thinking manifesto and the party also advocates for human rights for minority groups. Therefore, I do not think it is fair to equate these two parties in the same category.
However, there is a sizable portion of Northern Ireland that are ‘moderate’ green and orange, and there are also those that are neutral – they tend to vote UUP, SDLP or Alliance Party. The support for these parties tends to waiver due to the hardening attitudes of the two communities though. For example, we have the DUP who have been uncompromising and disrespectful concerning a number of issues which increases the support from the Protestant\Unionist\Loyalist (PUL) community who appreciate this hardened stance but in turn, this increases the support for Sinn Féin from the Irish\Nationalist\Republican community who are disillusioned and sick of the DUP and British Tory politics. This perpetuates the cycle of sectarian politics and democracy, as that is what the Northern Ireland political establishment is plain and simple.
It is also important to note that the PUL community tend to have a ‘under siege’ mentality and are insecure in their sense of identity; therefore, they will vote DUP regardless of policy and agenda, just to assert their ‘Britishness’ and ‘Unionism’. I once got into a debate with a DUP supporter who voted for the party even though his daughter was a member of the LGBT community. His stance was that he did not care whether or not his daughter could get married to her partner at their hometown, instead it was more important to prevent ‘Catholic Terrorists’ from gaining a majority. The phrase ‘to cut your nose to spite your face’ is one that describes this community aptly, which is a sad and pathetic reality.
However, all of this may be for nothing though, as it has come to light that this potential coalition between the Tories and the DUP may not be possible. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the British government is supposed to be a ‘neutral’ mediator in the complex political situation in Northern Ireland. Going into government with one of the key factions of the ‘green’ and ‘orange’ parties undermines this position of neutrality. It is stipulated that if this aspect is compromised, an international impartial mediator will have to be put forward. This will further impact and embarrass Theresa May’s already damaged reputation internationally. Furthermore, it is essential to look at the current political crisis in Northern Ireland in this context. At present, Stormont is in suspension because the DUP and Sinn Féin have failed to come to a power-sharing agreement, and if they continue to be in gridlock, it is very probable that the administration of Northern Ireland’s affairs will be undertaken by direct rule from Westminster. Now here is the BIG whammy – direct rule from a non-partisan British government is one thing but direct rule by an administration that will be influence by the DUP is quite another. It would undermine the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and would place the Irish Nationalist community in a precarious and disadvantaged position. This could lead to instability and increase already heightened tensions in the region. Therefore, it is further evidence of the disregard that the Tory British government has for Northern Ireland in that they would put at risk the peace process for their own selfish agenda.
To end this brief guide on your ‘Get to Know the DUP’, I will end on this note. For those of us in Northern Ireland who want a more progressive and outward looking society, the DUP are one of the main culprits for preventing this. People from the rest of the UK may be in disbelief that a party with such a background has been able to go unchecked and flourish in devolved politics, and may now be in a coalition government for the whole of the UK. You’ve finally caught on to the joke we’ve been living with for years. One thing I can promise you though, the DUP are a goldmine for those of us who enjoy satirical comedy and internet memes, and dear England, Wales and Scotland, you will roll your eyes at them and you will laugh at them, it’s a small silver-lining I know, but it’s something at least in this dark cloud of chaos.