Nobody expected to wait quite this long. Not the sections of the London press that railed so vociferously against the very notion that Theresa May might do a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. Not the bulk of the Conservative and Unionist party that had, just recently, repainted the fading letters of “and Unionist” on its sign in a bolder hue. Not even the Northern Ireland press that warned knowingly, as the days wore on, that the DUP always drove a hard bargain.
The Queen’s Speech has come and gone. And still, as the discussions deepen and drag, there has been no definitive amity between the Conservatives and their potential providers of “confidence and supply”. Instead there are leaks to the press, talk – and then denials – of enormous cash injections, and dark hints that the DUP must not be taken for granted. The DUP reportedly wants a soft border and a hard Brexit – or does it? There are rumours of Treasury tight-fistedness, Northern Ireland Office collywobbles, and, finally, suggestions of a rapprochement from Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP chief whip at Westminster. Meanwhile, Mrs May is dangling in a harsh wind.
The irony is that the DUP has been preparing for years for this very moment, the rare instant when its influence can be maximised in a Westminster hung parliament. Such an eventuality was uppermost in the party’s thinking in 2010, and again in 2015, and now – amid the Conservatives’ unexpected electoral chaos – it has finally come to pass. The DUP got what it desperately wanted, and that might be part of the problem: the possibilities are proving too much to compute. While the party is experienced in political horse trading, it is in an unfamiliar market.
There are two instincts within the DUP, held simultaneously but in varying intensities. The first is a belief in the continuation of the United Kingdom and its institutions – with particular reverence for the monarchy – and the assured place of Northern Irish unionists within that set-up. The second is a lively tribalism that has gained power and intensity with devolution, dominated by the urge to maximise and secure local advantage. At home, with the electoral meltdown of the moderate unionist UUP and the moderate nationalist SDLP, the DUP and Sinn Fein are now the only big beasts left standing: the twin victors of the plain, eyeballing one another, each one representing a different side of the sectarian bloc votes at Stormont that were institutionalised in the Belfast Agreement.
The DUP’s dream must be that it carries its signed wishlist triumphantly home, perhaps even earning a grudging respect from political opponents when the fruits of an anti-austerity and infrastructure deal ripen into the communal benefits of upgraded hospitals, schools and roads. There is some justification in the argument that Northern Ireland’s infrastructure has indeed yet to recover from the grim days when Jeremy Corbyn’s pals and the loyalist paramilitaries between them routinely wrecked the place.
The need for cash is particularly pressing as Northern Ireland was locked into a series of crippling PFI contracts in the Noughties, with payments currently running at £260 million a year. One of the most grotesque, for example, was signed off in 2005 under direct rule by the Labour minister Barry Gardiner. Under this doozy, a body called Invest NI committed to paying developers £120 million over 25 years for a plush office building that included catering and cleaning – but bafflingly agreed that at the end of that period, the taxpayer would still not own a single brick of the building.
Yet while a flashy Northern Ireland pay-off might well entrench the party’s success in its fiefdom, it could also sow tension for May in the wider United Kingdom, irking Scotland, Wales and English taxpayers too. I’m not sure how much that perturbs the DUP – perhaps, if it looked up from the small print, the intensity of the London media vitriol that has been poured on its head might give it pause for thought about the possibility of national cohesion.
The level of vitriol has been disturbing even to those of us from Northern Ireland who are both wary of the DUP’s social conservatism and familiar with its flaws: the Paisleyite inheritance, the party’s dwindling rump of religious fundamentalists and creationists, the energetic self-interest and intermittent financial scandals. But the ecstasies of liberal piety and fury in the British press at any potential deal with the DUP – the sort of deal that Labour sought in 2010 – have gone beyond normal political criticism and plunged into outright hypocrisy and untruths. It was as if – hemmed in by correctness on all sides – many, mainly English, pundits were finally relishing the unleashing of fire on people they could feel really pious about hating.
Otherwise reputable Twitter accounts from serious journalists eagerly shared as fact pictures of UDA paramilitary murals that had been crudely photoshopped to include images of the DUP. Cartoons of Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, routinely depicted her as a grotesque vision of an Orangeman – in the case of the Times cartoonist, Peter Brookes, an Orangeman with heavy stubble: it was a 21st century take on those notorious 19th century Punch images of the cringing Catholic Irishman with a stovepipe hat and shillelagh, except this time the targets were Protestant and Unionist.
Foster’s meeting with the UDA leader Jackie McDonald was brandished by no less than the deputy editor of The Guardian as firm evidence that she is a terrorist sympathiser – despite the fact that McDonald, now a veteran alumnus of the peace process, is a friend of the former Irish president Mary McAleese, and was pictured warmly shaking hands with Jonathan Powell – Tony Blair’s former chief of staff – in 2015, when Powell flew over to set up the “Loyalist Communities Council” with the UVF and UDA.
The continuing inclusion of former paramilitaries – with their terrible pasts and often questionable present – at virtually all costs is the central tenet of the peace process. The DUP needs to be more robust in facing down the loyalist paramilitaries, particularly in South Belfast. But if the proximity of paramilitaries to government continues to make you uneasy, as it does me, there will be very little practical place for you in Northern Ireland politics as currently constructed.
Foster is, in fact, a member of the Church of Ireland who happily drinks alcohol and only joined the DUP in 2004. She spent the day before the election in Messines, Belgium with the outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny, commemorating a WWI battle in which unionist and Irish nationalist soldiers fought side by side. When necessary, she has attended local events alongside the Sinn Fein MLA Sean Lynch, a former close comrade of the late IRA man Seamus McElwain, whom Foster believes attempted to murder her policeman father and succeeded in wounding him. How many armchair pundits have had to negotiate such a complex past and present?
Yet journalists who should and do know better wrote about the DUP exactly as if it were the roaringly sectarian Paisleyite party of the early 70s, rather than one that has been sharing power with Sinn Fein at Stormont for the last ten years. They lambasted its opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage as proof that it was politically irredeemable – while neglecting to point out that the DUP’s abortion policy is exactly the same as that held by the SDLP, Labour’s sister party in Northern Ireland, or that 136 Conservatives, 22 Labour, and 4 Lib Dem MPs voted in Parliament against the 2013 gay marriage bill: should those individuals be denied access to government too?
The reality is that Northern Ireland is a more religious society than the rest of the UK, and such views are more likely to be held by religious people of all faiths. There has been a sense that secular England is really having an argument with the remnants of religious England, feverishly using the DUP as a proxy – while not being quite bold enough, yet, to raise these differences of opinion in the same aggressive style with English Catholics or British Muslims.
What kind of deal can be thrashed out between the Conservatives and the DUP, and when? I do not know, but these talks have already exposed a chasm in both empathy and understanding between England and Northern Ireland. What is depressing, particularly as we approach the edgy heat of the marching season, is how few opinion-formers in England have even the honest inclination to try and bridge it.