For those of us who grew up on the island of Ireland the DUP and their political antecedents are a known, if unloved, quantity.
I met the founding father of the DUP, Dr Ian Paisley, at Stormont in 1968 on a schoolboy civics trip from St Paul’s College Raheny Dublin. He was quite charming in person in total contrast to the firebrand image he radiated on television.
His thoughts on the EU (the “final manifestation” of the evil Roman Empire, the kingdom of the anti-Christ) show a mindset more suited to the 17th than 21st century. Here a quote from 2000.
Knowing the Bible should make us realise that it is pure folly to want to join (via ecumenism) this final apostasy of Babylon which is Biblically and historically wrong. Rome is unchanging, unrepentant and arrogant without change. People are striving for unity with this beast as though it was something required as a necessity in this life and for the next. Such folly when our gracious Lord brought us out of such bondage in the Sixteenth century. . . . What folly to return.
There is a probably apocryphal tale of an air hostess on landing in Northern Ireland advising the passengers to put their watch back one hour and three hundred years.
I’ve written about the DUP in detail before, but in brief, they have an all consuming terror of being devoured by their southern neighbour and a unwavering belief in their superiority and invincibility.
Clout far beyond their Electoral Strength
Because of the parliamentary arithmetic after the 2017 GE the DUP hold the balance of power and entered a confidence and supply arrangement with the current government. This raised an alarm bell as the Belfast Agreement (GFA) – an international treaty lodged at the UN, ensures strict impartiality on the part of the sovereign government in NI, currently HMG. From the GFA:
…the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities.
Rigorous impartiality? My arse (in the immortal words of Ricky Tomlinson).
The DUP are not representative of Northern Ireland. It is true that they have 10 MPs (now the diagraced Ian Paisley Jnr has reentered the fold) but that was achieved with just 292,316 votes – 36% of the NI votes cast in 2017. In contrast to their closest soulmates in Britain, UKIP polled more than twice as many votes but ended up with no seats. (In 2015 UKIP polled more than ten times the DUP and ended with 1 seat).
The DUP are successful because their electorate are concentrated into the Unionist heartland – a very small region as shown in Fig 1.
The DUP were the only major NI party to support Brexit. What is worrying is that many of its core voters are fanatical Brexit supporters to an extent that a recent poll showed 87% of NI Leave voters think a collapse of the peace process is a price worth paying for Brexit. Despite what the DUP say publicly many in the DUP want a hard border, and the harder the better. They display an extreme form of ethnic British Nationalism as discussed in my recent Slugger O’Toole article (chosen for the launch of the Future Ireland series): Northern Ireland and the Humpty Dumpty World of Schrödinger’s Cats (also here on Progressive Pulse).
The European Context
The DUP are currently in Brussels for three days of talks. They are determined not to have a border on the Irish Sea, despite the fact that a majority (almost certainly a super-majority) would choose a sea rather than a land border if it were the only choice.
Three days are a long time for talks. More than saying “No! No No!”, “Never! Never! Never!” and “No Surrender!” it is difficult to see what more the DUP can say. Barnier knows NI extremely well. It is not that the DUP’s arguments are unheard, it is that they are weak. The belief that the backstop is in any way a constitutional threat to NI is nonsense, though it is an extremely useful conceit for UKGov in bargaining with the EU.
It is bizarre that they have so much power. Less than a week ago Barnier met Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin), Colum Eastwood (SDLP), Stephen Farry (Alliance), and Stephen Agnew (Greens), who emphasised that they represent the majority in the North who opposed Brexit -and have a majority in the NI assembly. They believe rightly that the backstop is not a threat to the constitutional position of the North but a pragmatic attempt to “protect citizens and businesses on the island.”
A useful map provided by Derek Mooney (@dsmooney) which shows the DUP heartland in the European context emphasises again how bizarre it is that they can wield such power.
The Ultimate Irony
The ultimate irony of course is that NI will remain part of the UK as long as the majority of its voters wish to do so. The one thing which will most alienate Nationalist and moderate Unionist voters is a hard border on the island of Ireland. The recent Delta Poll showed a 56% to 44% split in favour of a United Ireland in the case of Brexit plus a hard border. If the DUP are successful they will have done more to ensure a United Ireland win in the past three years than Sinn Féin and the PIRA did in the last thirty.
Their ultraconservative views are also an Achilles Heel, particularly the lack of gay and abortion rights. Women in particular seem to have had enough. The most startling statistic from the Delta Poll is the greater than 2:1 female support for a United Ireland in the case of Brexit plus a Hard Border.