Tom Peterkin: DUP deal is fraught with risk for Theresa May

The DUP has been practised in the subtle arts of realpolitik since its foundation by Ian Paisley,The DUP has been practised in the subtle arts of realpolitik since its foundation by Ian Paisley,
The DUP has been practised in the subtle arts of realpolitik since its foundation by Ian Paisley,
Having found itself in the role of power broker, the DUP will drive a hard bargain at Westminster says Tom Peterkin.

Theresa May is not the first British Prime Minister to seek support from Northern Irish Unionists in times of political turmoil.

The first occasion that the Orange card was played was in 1896 when the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone introduced legislation to bring Home Rule to Ireland.

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Lord Randolph Churchill incited the Protestants of Ulster to reject a Catholic all-Ireland parliament – a highly provocative move which led to the defeat of the Home Rule Bill.

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Another example of Conservatives forming an alliance with Northern Irish Protestants came almost a century later when John Major sought Ulster Unionist support for a key vote on Spanish fishing rights.

As his premiership came to grief, Major became increasingly reliant on the Ulster Unionists.

So Theresa May’s efforts to strike a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party is hardly a new phenomenon. But given her ability to convert predictions of a landslide into losing a majority, her efforts to play the Orange card smack more of the desperation of the Major years than Randolph Churchill’s cynical manoeuvre.

With talks between the UK government and the DUP taking place to forge a deal, there is a great deal of concern about how sustainable any such deal will be.

That has been accompanied by distaste over the prospect of ten MPs from a party with such a chequered history holding the balance of power.

Founded by Ian Paisley, the DUP was a malign influence during the Northern Irish Troubles.

Under the uncompromising leadership of the firebrand preacher, the DUP was responsible for bringing down several attempts to introduce power-sharing Stormont administrations when Northern Ireland was engulfed by violence.

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In the murky world of the Northern Irish sectarian conflict there was also the question of the DUP’s links to the paramilitary Ulster Resistance, formed by loyalists in the 1980s in opposition to the Anglo Irish Agreement.

During the worst of the Troubles, Dr Paisley and his right hand man Peter Robinson led a disruptive fringe party on the edge of the peace process. Since then, however, the DUP has established itself as the mainstream voice of Unionism in Ulster.

It was one of the tragedies of the peace process that a side-effect of the Good Friday Agreement was the polarisation of Northern Irish politics which saw the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party lose ground to the DUP.

The same trend was observed on the other side of the political divide where Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, moved into the Nationalist centre ground at the expense of the moderate SDLP.

Having done the hard work to establish the 1998 Agreement, the UUP and SDLP became victims of the compromises they made for the greater good. The DUP claimed the UUP under David Trimble had sold out to the Nationalists, a claim that saw the DUP profit at the polls and install itself as the dominant Unionist force. Then, without any sense of irony, it was Dr Paisley who finally went into government with Sinn Fein, an arrangement that stuck in many people’s throats.

For these reasons, Mrs May’s nascent Faustian pact with Arlene Foster of the DUP will also prove hard to swallow for many. Among them is Sir John Major, an architect of the peace process who has concerns about the implications for that peace process.

With the Stormont Assembly in abeyance, Sir John has said the deal would interfere with the UK government’s role as an honest broker in attempts to restore devolved institutions in Ulster. Ruth Davidson has also flexed her new-found muscles and expressed her alarm at the DUP’s refusal to recognise gay marriage.

For the DUP, however, this is a golden opportunity and as a veteran of tough negotiations, Ms Foster will drive a hard bargain.

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There may be a temptation to think the DUP will be taking part in talks seeking movement on Northern Ireland’s interminable rows over flying flags and parade routes.

To do so, however, would be the misjudge a pretty savvy political operation. Rather than flags and parades, cash will be at the heart of the DUP’s demands. Securing extra money for infrastructure projects will be on the shopping list as well as assurances that there will be a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit. There is also likely to be an attempt to minimise the chances of a referendum on uniting Ireland.

“They will screw the UK government for money,” was how one seasoned observer on the other side of the Irish Sea put it yesterday.

There is a strong streak of realpolitik in today’s DUP, which recognises that getting bogged down in sectarian issues or promoting its illiberal views on equal marriage is not the most profitable way to approach these negotiations.

DUP negotiators realise the window of opportunity opened by Mrs May’s dismal election is not likely to stay open forever.

The unsatisfactory nature of any partnership that emerges from the current talks means that there is limited appeal in it becoming a long term arrangement.

With many predicting another general election in the not too distant future, the DUP knows it must grab the cash while it can. It may be the Prime Minister who is playing the Orange card, but the unenviable position she finds herself in means that – for the time being – the DUP has the strongest hand.