Monday, June 19, 2017

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Calm Down - Don't Panic

Former Blanket columnist Dr John Coulter seeks to map out how the Democratic Unionist Party will influence the Westminster landscape in the coming days.

Don’t panic! Don’t panic! The iconic chant of Corporal Jones from the historic BBC sitcom, Dad’s Army, should apply to the British mainland at the looming prospect of the Tory/Democratic Unionist coalition government at Westminster.

My ‘calm down’ analysis is based on almost 40 years in Irish journalism, covering the fortunes of the DUP as the movement has risen from fringe status within the Unionist family, to the overwhelming voice of the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland.

I grew up in the old Bannside Stormont constituency where DUP founder and Hell fire preacher, the late Rev Ian Paisley, launched his party under its original title – the Protestant Unionist Party.

The DUP in a current coalition Commons government cannot be judged on its past, especially with its flirtations with loyalist paramilitaries. Many DUP members and supporters donned combat gear and marched with groups, such as the Ulster Third Force and Ulster Resistance Movement.

However, the hard political reality is that DUP2017 is a mirror image of the Unionist party it has eclipsed – the more moderate Ulster Unionists. Essentially, DUP2017 is UUP1987 under the leadership of the late Lord Molyneaux.

The internet has been buzzing furiously as many try to find out more about the new kingmakers of British politics, given that in the past the former South Down UUP MP Enoch Powell – famed for his ‘rivers of blood’ speech – once branded the DUP as the Protestant Sinn Fein.

Noted for its hardline Christian fundamentalist stance against same sex marriage, gay rights and abortion, the DUP was even branded the Protestant Taliban by gay rights activists.

But the DUP is a pragmatic movement. When Paisley senior originally launched the DUP in 1971, it was a political shotgun marriage of two voiceless sections of the Protestant community – evangelical Christians and the loyalist working class.

However, people in mainland Britain should not be panicking that the price of Theresa May’s coalition with the DUP will be a return to Cromwellian-style witch finder general puritan social policies.

The DUP will be primarily interested in a generous financial package for Northern Ireland and will not seek to meddle in mainland laws. While Scottish Tory boss Ruth Davidson, who is openly gay, has expressed serious concerns about the DUP’s social wish list, there is little chance of the DUP demanding a draconian fundamentalist Christian series of laws akin to the party’s notorious ‘Save Ulster From Sodomy’ campaign during the reign of Rev Paisley.

Instead, rather than talk of a Hard Brexit or Soft Brexit, the DUP will be negotiating that PM May delivers a Best Brexit for Northern Ireland in return for the 10 DUP votes in the Commons.

All mainland politicians should note that the DUP is a political beast which puts party first. Just because the DUP has agreed to prop up May’s Government in this parliamentary session does not mean the DUP will be glued to the Tories at the hip. 

Should May face a serious leadership challenge and another snap poll called, Labour chief Jeremy Corbyn must be ready to hand out political olive branches to the DUP as part of any future anti-Tory ‘rainbow coalition’ at Westminster, given that Sinn Fein’s seven MPs still refuse to take their seats. 

The DUP and Sinn Fein worked together in the Stormont power-sharing Executive and hold 17 out of Ulster’s 18 Commons seats – the 18th seat held by Independent Unionist Sylvia Hermon. 

If Corbyn can use his republican connections to persuade Sinn Fein to dump abstentionism, those 18 votes could well be the tipping point which hands the Labour boss the keys to Downing Street. 

Traditionally, the DUP, while it has been to the Right on the Union and the British Constitution, it has equally been to the Left on many social issues. Unlike the rival Ulster Unionists, the DUP is not known for airing its dirty political linen in public. All DUP infighting is largely done behind closed doors.

True, for many years the DUP was dominated by Paisley’s Christian fundamentalism, but its current boss Arlene Foster is ex-UUP and an Anglican. The DUP’s hardline stance on gay rights and abortion has more to do with keeping the fundamentalist faction on board than discrimination against homosexuality. 

Whilst the DUP was seen mainly as a working class movement, to become the primary voice for Unionism it had to sell itself in the middle class heartlands once dominated by the UUP. 

The DUP will also seek a cash package from PM May aimed at restoring the collapsed Stormont institutions, but realises this could include a period of Direct Rule from Westminster in the short term while a new peace deal with Sinn Fein is hammered out. 

Part of the negotiation for this could be a return to the Good Friday Agreement ruling that the posts of First and Deputy First Minister at Stormont are decided by community designation – unionist or nationalist – rather than the largest parties. This would ease the case for those who wish to see a merger of the DUP and UUP to form a single pro-Union party.

  • Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter