The second week of the talks to re-build the power-sharing institutions are underway, yet there has been little-to-no media fuss surrounding them even though the implications of failure are extremely damaging. Why? Because all eyes are on another set of talks: between the Tories and the DUP.
There has been intense reaction at the prospect of Northern Ireland’s largest political party signing up to a deal with an increasingly unpopular Conservative Party. Once counting started to show that a hung parliament was inevitable and a Tory-DUP alliance likely, social media has responded hysterically since election night.
Some of this hysteria was directed at the social views of the DUP, yet more measured concern leaned towards the implications such a deal could have on our peace process.
However, when weighing up the potential pitfalls of this political marriage, it is important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Love them or hate them, here are five keys reasons why Northern Ireland stands to gain from a Tory-DUP deal in Parliament:
- Economic; In televised debates, the DUP pledged to get a ‘good deal in Northern Ireland’ at Westminster. Now it has a chance to honour that commitment. Whilst Northern Ireland already receives a larger per capita proportion of Barnett consequentials in its block grant than other devolved parts of the UK, it seems unlikely that more cash will flow directly into the Assembly coffers. That said, the DUP will be certain to ask for guarantees for infrastructure projects, such as the Yorkstreet interchange, as well as investment for job creation in certain sectors that will be negatively impacted by Brexit. It has been reported that the party has asked for an extra £1 billion to be earmarked for infrastructure projects.
- Social issues; As we have already seen, the politics of the DUP will now be front and centre stage of the UK landscape. Despite this being the reason many voters are objecting to a deal, the close relationship with a Conservative Party that supports equal marriage, with many gay members and senior representatives, may actually increase the likelihood of equal marriage being introduced in Northern Ireland.
- Social policy; In comparison to England, Northern Ireland arguably has a better (although far from perfect) social care system. The DUP have already stated that they will oppose any attempt to implement a ‘Dementia Tax’ in Northern Ireland. Aware of the unpopularity of the manifesto pledge, the DUP may provide the Tories with convenient cover to drop or significantly change their initial social care proposals. In Northern Ireland, the DUP has reportedly demanded an extra £1 billion to fund the NHS. If it materialises, would other parties in Northern Ireland really complain?
- Brexit; As the only party in Northern Ireland to register with the Leave campaign, it seems fitting that the DUP should be held accountable to ensure Northern Ireland gets the best deal possible. Despite former MLA Nelson McCausland’s ‘Brexit at all costs’ comment, Arlene Foster may wish to follow a more pragmatic path. Before the election, Theresa May was on course to deliver a hard Brexit. After a major electoral setback and a crucial intervention from her Chancellor yesterday, the Theresa May and Arlene Foster may conclude that a soft Brexit will be the only economically and electorally sensible option.
- Negotiating talent; Politics aside, the DUP are undoubtedly a qualified bunch; mostly barristers by trade, their acumen serves to stand them well in any negotiations still to come. The media in the rest of the UK seemed surprised that a deal didn’t come as quickly as Downing Street and DUP sources initially suggested. Their counterparts in Belfast were far less surprised. The DUP have considerable negotiating experience. They won’t be rushed for anyone.
Regardless of your political leanings, there is the reality of simple arithmetic in Parliament. The Conservatives need support from beyond their own party; the DUP is by far the most likely source of that support. A formal deal is far from certain, but we should be careful against being too dismissive of the DUP’s influence at Westminster.
The prospect of lobbying your local MP with direct influence on UK-wide policy is not something we should foolishly underestimate. Before we throw the baby out with the bath water, let’s see if the DUP really can deliver the best deal for Northern Ireland. After all, if a party has a chance to fulfil its pledges to voters after an election, why wouldn’t it take it?