The DUP is expected to prop up a government set to make key decisions affecting the future of Europe. What can we anticipate from the Northern party, asks Mary C Murphy

IN ORDER to ensure the survival of her minority government, UK prime minister Theresa May has chosen to pursue a confidence and supply arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

For the DUP, the unexpected post-election arithmetic allows it a degree of political leverage during the lifetime of the current UK government. This means the party now assumes a potentially influential role in shaping the Brexit process, not just for Northern Ireland but for the UK as a whole.

Sections of the UK press have reacted somewhat hysterically to the possibility of a small right-wing socially conservative unionist political party having some leverage over the UK government.

In assessing the DUP’s supposed suitability for a role at the centre of UK politics, the predominant emphasis has been on the DUP’s social policy platform.

The party’s views on a variety of issues, including marriage equality, abortion, and climate change, grate with the British mainstream. This inordinate focus on the DUP’s social agenda, however, is misplaced.

Party leader Arlene Foster has already stated that such policies will not be part of the negotiating agenda with the Conservative Party. The same is true for some of the more troublesome and politically charged issues specific to Northern Ireland, including questions around the Orange Order marching season and conflict legacy issues. Instead, the DUP emphasis is on financial and socio-economic demands.

The bulk of these demands are focused on securing financial benefits for Northern Ireland.

This may include:

  • Additional funding and capital spending to support schools and hospitals;
  • Changes to the region’s corporation tax rate;
  • Enhanced transport and communication links between Britain and Northern Ireland;
  • More government and infrastructure contracts for the region;
  • Greater support for foreign investment in Northern Ireland.

The DUP’s financial demands also extend to support for broader UK policy changes, including the scrapping of the so-called bedroom tax; the safeguarding of the triple lock on pensions; and the retention of the winter fuel allowance.

A further issue with immense economic implications for Northern Ireland is Brexit. Northern Ireland, more than any other region of the UK, is likely to be among the worst affected by the UK withdrawal from the EU. However, detailed discussion of Brexit — as part of the overall confidence and supply arrangement — has been little in evidence.

The DUP was largely alone in Northern Ireland in campaigning for Leave during the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership. Both the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Féin supported the Remain position, as did the smaller Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party. In contrast to the overall UK vote to exit the EU, Northern Ireland voted in favour of continued membership.

The DUP decision to support the Leave position was at once both understandable and curious. Northern Ireland, and especially large landowners and farmers (an important DUP constituency), stand to lose out in the context of Brexit, so advocating for Leave was a questionable position to take, at least from an economic standpoint.

In addition, the impact of the Leave vote gives some credence to calls for both Scottish independence and Irish unity. Both of these prospects threaten the unity of the UK and unionist sensibilities.

The DUP, however, has always been a Eurosceptic party. The party originally viewed UK membership of the EU as a religious, economic, and political disaster for Northern Ireland.

Even though its opposition to the EU has modified somewhat over time, it would still have been difficult for the party to abandon its traditionally sceptical view of the EU.

The DUP’s support for the UK withdrawal from the EU, however, has not blinded the party to the economic and political costs of Brexit for Northern Ireland. In a (rare) example of cross-party unity, Ms Foster, the first minister, and the late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, jointly drafted a letter to Ms May setting out their key concerns for Northern Ireland following the Leave vote.

The letter focused on issues including:

  • The status of the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland;
  • Competitiveness, trade, and access to labour;
  • Energy issues;
  • EU funding programmes;
  • Impact on the agri-food and fisheries sector

The DUP’s 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly manifesto supports continued co-operation with the Republic of Ireland based on : “common aims such as a seamless, frictionless border and maintenance of the common travel area”.

This preference however, is not predicated on any sort of special deal for Northern Ireland. From the DUP’s perspective, Northern Ireland must not be treated differently from the rest of the UK.

To do so risks distancing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, and possibly furthering the united Ireland agenda.

In her recent meeting with new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Ms Foster spoke of a “sensible Brexit”. What precisely this means is unclear.

Ms Foster’s party colleague Ian Paisley Jr claims that the DUP wants out of the customs union. A sensible Brexit, it seems, may not necessarily point to a soft Brexit.

For the DUP and Northern Ireland, there is much at stake here. The softer the Brexit, the less costly the economic effect and the less divisive the political impact.

On the other hand, a hard exit from the EU risks both economic and political instability in Northern Ireland, and even more broadly across the UK.

Although the DUP strategy to achieve financial benefits for Northern Ireland as part of the confidence and supply arrangement may be welcome, no amount of additional funding will be enough to rescue Northern Ireland in the event of an ill-designed and damaging Brexit process.

In this scenario, the DUP’s vision of a prosperous and cohesive United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland may be utterly undermined.

The changed UK political landscape, however, provides the DUP with some capacity to influence the UK government’s developing Brexit strategy in a softer direction and in ways which fit with the party’s stated preference for a “seamless, frictionless border”.

By angling for a softer UK exit strategy, the DUP would remain true to its original support for a UK exit from the EU, but it would be structuring the process in a way which better respects the interests of Northern Ireland as a whole, and which reflects the broader UK post-election appetite for a less hard Brexit.

Perhaps more crucially, such a move may well help to stabilise and safeguard the union to which the DUP is so unflinchingly loyal.

Mary C Murphy is a lecturer in politics in the Department of Government, University College Cork. She is the author of Northern Ireland and the European Union: The Dynamics of a Changing Relationship (Manchester University Press 2014).

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