Opinion: Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative-DUP voting pact explained

Sheena Salmon Reporter

Prime Minister Theresa May has entered talks with the Democratic Unionist Party after a shock election result saw the Conservatives lose their majority in the House of Commons. Google stats show that the question most asked of it’s search engine this weekend has been ‘who are the DUP?’. Given their small number of MPs and tiny media profile it’s perhaps not surprising however, the move will be less of a surprise to keen Westminster watchers.

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The full title of the Conservative party is ‘The Conservative and Unionist party’ and an unofficial agreement between the two parties which sees the DUP supporting government voting lines has existed now for some time. Perhaps more surprising is Theresa May’s enthusiasm to align herself with such a controversial party, one that can only be described as holding extreme views. A party with which John Major refused to enter into coalition with when he himself had a minority government, stating the importance of protecting the peace process. But who exactly are they?

The DUP were founded by Ian Paisley at the height of the troubles in 1971, he lead the party for 37 years. It is now lead by Arlene Foster and is the party with the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is the fifth largest party in the House of Commons.

The DUP evolved from the Protestant Unionist party and has historically strong links to the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the church Paisley founded. For most of it’s history the DUP was the smaller of the two Unionist parties, the larger being the Ulster Unionist party (UUP). The DUP has also traditionally been seen as the more hard line of the two. It campaigned against the Sunningdale agreement of 1974, the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, and the Good Friday agreement of 1998. In the 1980s the party was involved in attempts to create a paramilitary movement which culminated in Ulster Resistance.

In all the sensationalism and speculation after the general election result it has been easy to overlook the fact that power sharing in Northern Ireland has collapsed. In January, Martin McGuiness resigned in protest over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. Arlene Foster refused to resign. His resignation caused snap elections after Sinn Fein refused to re-nominate a deputy first minister. The Northern Ireland Assembly election resulted in a loss of 10 seats for the DUP, leaving them only one seat and 1,200 votes ahead of Sinn Fein. In the 2017 election the DUP won 10 seats overall, 3 seats ahead of Sinn Fein.

Most worryingly are the DUP’s paramilitary connections. The DUP are strongly backed by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The UDA issued a statement during this election campaign ‘strongly urging’ voters to back the DUP’s candidate for South Belfast Emma Little Pengelly. Northern Ireland Justice minister said ‘Arlene Foster needs to make it clear if her party accepts this endorsement from the UDA. It is now 2017 and paramilitaries should not even exist never mind be giving ringing endorsements of political candidates. The electorate deserves to know’.

There is no suggestion that the DUP support the UDA however, Arlene Foster attracted much criticism when it emerged that she had met with the UDA’s chief just 48 hours after a man was shot dead in a supermarket car park in front of his 3 year old child.

Away from it’s paramilitary links the DUP takes a hard line on many social issues. It is against abortion rights, does not support same sex marriage and has referred to breast feeding in public as ‘exhibitionism’. It is difficult to see how Theresa May can be seen to support such an agenda.

But perhaps the bitterest irony of all the campaign run by the Conservatives against Jeremy Corbyn. In highly personal attacks it repeatedly pointed to Corbyn’s supposed IRA sympathies and warned of a ‘coalition of chaos’. It is ironic indeed to see the very same people now so dependant upon the DUP.


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