Why May's New Belfast Friends Might Urge a Pragmatic Brexit

  • DUP attacked for opposing gay marriage and abortion policy
  • But party also wants open Irish border and free trade

Why It's Unlikely U.K.'s May Will See Stable DUP Deal

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For a party founded by a firebrand evangelical preacher, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s new political friends may end up being less hard line when it comes to the biggest issue facing the country: Brexit.

May’s partnering with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has stoked outrage over its opposition to gay marriage, abortion and policies combating climate change. But the party’s call for a cautious separation from the European Union could disturb some of her Conservatives even more. 

The DUP, which will hold the balance of power, is sure to squeeze as much money as possible for its region, among the poorest in the British Isles, as the price for giving May a parliamentary majority.

More talks between the prime minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster are scheduled for Tuesday in London after May gambled and lost her outright control in Thursday’s election. The party of Protestant minister Ian Paisley has been portrayed as lying on the extreme of British politics. Comb through the DUP’s manifesto, and in reality many of its policies are closer to anti-austerity campaigners like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

“At its core, the DUP is a populist, pragmatic party,” said Peter Donaghy, a data analyst who has been tracking its voting record at Westminster. “Their wishlist will center on more money for Northern Ireland and Brexit. They aren’t going to sacrifice economics for ideology.”

Religious Roots

The DUP’s roots make it an easy target to caricature. Paisley founded the group in the 1970s to oppose the Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland.

The party remains close to the religious roots set down by Paisley, who called alcohol “the devil’s buttermilk,” with members often belonging to evangelical churches. It opposes legalizing gay marriage and widening access to abortion in Northern Ireland, even though both are legal in the rest of the U.K.

Yet, neither will feature heavily in Foster’s talks with May, reflecting the transformation of the party into one with a taste for government. Writing in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday, Foster dismissed some of the party’s critics as “downright inaccurate and misleading.”

Paisley, who died in 2014, was instrumental in the power-sharing deal -- albeit often a precarious one -- with the mainly Catholic nationalists following the Good Friday Agreement that largely ended the province’s bloody sectarian conflict.

“The DUP is socially conservative, but the focus on that is superficial,” said John Bruton, who was Irish prime minister between 1994 and 1997. “They will have just 10 seats, a confidence and supply deal isn’t going to cover these sort of issues and most of the other parties in Westminster oppose their views anyway.”

Open Border

Instead, the talks will turn to how to leave the EU just as May promoted a prominent pro-Brexit minister and reappointed a second to her cabinet as she clings to her job. At the same time, some senior ministers are working to moderate her plan to leave the single market.

While the DUP backed leaving the EU despite the province being among the U.K.’s largest recipients of European aid, it also wants a “frictionless border” with the Irish Republic. The party has yet to spell out in detail a position on the customs union, and an exit will make it harder to keep the border with the rest of Ireland open.

Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K. when the rest of Ireland gained independence from Britain in 1922, and about 30 percent of Northern Ireland’s exports go south to the republic.

“They are going to have go all in with the Conservatives and that means making sure the Conservatives don’t hurt their constituents,” said Bruton. “I hope that means they will persuade the Conservatives to abandon the idea of leaving the customs union.”

Staying in that trading zone means accepting freedom of movement for migrant workers, and Foster has hinted that she’s not as concerned about immigration as some of the advocates of an uncompromising Brexit in London.

“Whatever the debate today about immigration from the EU, there is no doubt that our country has been enhanced by the people who have over decades come to our shore,” Foster said as she launched her party’s election manifesto in May.

Money Talks

Then there’s the matter of cash. Foster will focus on how much extra support the DUP can persuade the Conservatives to cough up for Northern Ireland.

The manifesto suggests Foster will focus on:

  • Winning a 12.5% or lower corporation tax rate in 2018
  • a Rapid Transit Scheme for Belfast
  • More roads and infrastructure
  • More defense spending, an increase in the minimum wage, reductions to household energy bills and the maintenance of the “triple lock” ensuring increases in pensions that May abandoned before the election.

According to Donaghy, the analyst, the DUP consistently side with Labour and not the Conservatives on tax-and-spend issues. “On economic issues, like pretty much all Northern Irish parties, they want to have their cake and eat it,” he said. “They want more money and they want London to pay.”

Sectarian History

Still, even if the DUP helps brings short-term political stability, it may contribute to heightened tensions closer to home. Talks on restoring the region’s power-sharing assembly in Belfast, which collapsed earlier this year, are due to restart on Monday.

There are now concerns that the U.K.’s role as an impartial force in the process may be undermined by its reliance on the DUP. The party will want to postpone dealing with legacy issues from the paramilitary conflict in Northern Ireland, like the possible prosecution of British soldiers for actions during the Troubles.

And there will be stark reminders of the bitter history of Northern Irish politics. The DUP wants more freedom to fly the red, white and blue Union Flag on public buildings, and reduce restrictions on parades by the Orange Order.

That organization was founded in 1795 to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne, when King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James to maintain Protestant supremacy in Ireland, and the Orangemen’s annual marching season can still spark violent clashes between the Protestant and Catholic communities.

“In the heat of politics it can sometimes be all too easy to forget what we are actually fighting for,” Foster said last month. “Northern Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom is the most important thing to this party and the motivating factor behind all we do in politics.”

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