Fortuitous electoral circumstances have propelled the DUP onto a national stage, but understanding the party requires an appreciation of deeper structural patterns
The 2017 general election result has cast Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the role of Westminster power brokers with a supply and confidence agreement between them and the Conservative Party on the horizon. Many things have been written about the DUP across a range of media in the days since June 8th. Much of the coverage has been negative. Relatively little of it has been factually inaccurate.
Three issues have received less attention and deserve greater consideration: how they obtained a record number of Westminster seats; how their position on the economy is driven by political considerations; and how the structural roots of the party condition behaviours. Together these factors help us to understand the deep politics and (non) economics of the DUP.
First, the DUP are only able to exercise some leverage in negotiations with a Conservative Party who fell eight seats short of a working majority, because they themselves increased their Westminster representation from eight seats to a record ten. One gain was in South Antrim from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Traditionally this seat has passed between the two parties and so was unremarkable. The other gain in South Belfast is the more interesting case. It is Northern Ireland’s most cosmopolitan, diverse and progressive constituency – home to the University district and several traditionally mixed communities where sectarian division is muted. It is also home to a number of protestant working class communities where the DUP has traditionally been strong. But the overall arithmetic should not have favoured the DUP. At the 2015 general election, the DUP lost to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) by 900 votes. Minimal tactical voting by the anti-DUP majority in South Belfast should have kept the seat out of DUP hands, even with a larger turn out from DUP working class strongholds in response to the recent Sinn Fein surge and talk of a border poll on Irish unity. However, tactical voting did not materialise.
On election evening I was involved in a telling discussion with two old friends in a bar on Belfast’s Ormeau Road. It proved to be a microcosm of the eventual outcome of the 2017 general election. One, a protestant by background, wouldn’t vote for the incumbent SDLP MP, Alasdair McDonnell, because of his track record and was voting Sinn Fein due to a greater concern with social justice. The other, a catholic by background eschewed the SDLP’s close connections to the Catholic Church, favouring the non-aligned Alliance Party. I predicted that tactical voting for the SDLP as the largest party was the only way a DUP victory could be avoided. On this occasion it might also have national implications. They had heard this before in 2015, so my friends shrugged, and did their thing. Ultimately, the SDLP polled 11,303 votes, the Alliance and Sinn Fein over 7000 each and the DUP just over 13,000. The three way split that played out in the bar conversation handed the seat to the DUP.
The story illustrates how UK general elections conducted under first past the post usually don’t matter in Northern Ireland. Choices have little impact on who governs at Westminster. Voters can usually follow their convictions, with few consequences (the single transferrable vote system in local assembly elections is a different matter). This haphazard, accidental set of circumstances resulted in the DUP’s record ten Westminster seats and gave them the bargaining position they currently enjoy.
Second, some of the most informed commentary on the DUP has come from Professor Jon Tonge. Jon’s recent book on the DUP is a serious piece of scholarship. However, two of the points he has made in the media since the election conceal aspects of the conflicted and paradoxical electoral political economy of the DUP. One claim is that the DUP are not seeking to project their beliefs on gay rights, abortion, climate change denial and Christian doctrine into mainstream British politics. Rather they are looking for a good economic deal for Northern Ireland. This is true. However it misses that what is really at stake is the possible reputational damage and contamination to the Conservative Party’s own brand, due to a self-serving short-termist association with a party that adopts many positions the vast majority of the English electorate find morally repugnant.
Tonge has also suggested that the DUP are a centre left party on the economy, but the reality is more complex. Few on the ground in Northern Ireland would recognise that description. There are also reasons to be sceptical of the claim, referenced by BBC Northern Ireland’s Economics and Business correspondent John Campbell, that the DUP will be the party to end austerity. Paradoxically, for a party that is now making ‘economic considerations’ central to its negotiating stance, the DUP are not a party with a strong economic tradition or well developed views on the economy. Generally, they have lacked a coherent economic vision or strategy. Policing, flags, parading, security, the border, the threat of catholic supremacy and a united Ireland, together with a staunchly biblical socio-ethical stance have been the DUP’s focus. Of course more money for their network of constituents will be a DUP priority.
The DUP’s position on austerity and ‘neoliberalism’ has at best been ambiguous. Their public criticisms of austerity have been muted compared to Sinn Fein. They have been one of the strongest voices for cutting corporation tax to low levels to compete with the Republic of Ireland. They also advocated welfare reform and restructuring the Northern Ireland civil service in the fresh start initiative as a means of putting the assembly’s finances on a ‘sustainable footing’. Their record in government at Stormont on redistribution and social mobility has largely been poor. They have done little directly to improve the economic condition of the urban working class areas where they attract much support. Educational attainment in working class protestant areas of Belfast is among the worst in the UK. And a sense of neglect in these communities is widely regarded as having fuelled the disorderly flag protests of 2013. Opposing the bedroom tax and arguing for more money for Northern Ireland is hardly sufficient to offset that track record. The DUP are economically pragmatic. Electoral and political advantage, cementing the Union and servicing key constituents, simultaneously trumps and drives economic considerations.
Thirdly, understanding the DUP, its behaviours and what they mean for their potential relationship with the Conservative Party, requires a focus on a set of more structural political, ideological and cultural patterns that shape the party’s policies and pronouncements. It is vitally important to appreciate that over the last decade the DUP have repeatedly and consistently found themselves dogged by a number of recurring scandals and controversies. These controversies have had two primary sources that relate to how the party is embedded in wider civil society. The first of these relates to Northern Ireland’s network of evangelical protestant churches, which are a key recruiting ground, with many DUP politicians having strong Christian beliefs based on very specific readings of the Bible. Former leader Peter Robinson’s statements on Islam, Jim Wells, Iris Robinson and Sammy Wilson’s comments on homosexuality, Mervyn Storey’s criticisms of the National Trust, and Thomas Buchanan’s advocation of teaching creationism to school children are all rooted in specific biblical readings. They are not one offs, but part of a deeper structural trend.
The second form of controversy relates to the DUP’s networks of clientelism and patronage, which shape its economic stances. Northern Ireland’s booming property market in the run up to the financial crash of 2007-08 saw many leading DUP politicians cultivate relations with property developers. Scandals duly followed. Ian Paisley Jnr in relation to Seymour Sweeny and Peter Robinson in relation to the NAMA affair are two of the better known. Most recently the Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI) Scandal involved payments direct to Ulster farmers that are a key DUP constituency. Many direct beneficiaries had family links to senior DUP figures. Clientelism and patronage of this sort are again part of a deeper structural pattern.
While the DUP has sought to modernise, these are deep rooted structural trends that are unlikely to suddenly cease. The DUP’s probable new role on the national stage also comes with a national spotlight. This means that such controversies are now unlikely to remain locally contained issues. As attention on the DUP grows, their motivations and behaviours should be understood in the context of the factors outlined here.