The election in Northern Ireland was an enormously dispiriting one for me. As a Unionist who is a former liberal Tory I threw my hat in with the UUP a number of years ago, before joining them last year.
When I first started working with them the new Stormont Opposition (UUP/SDLP) was box fresh and ready to try and land blows on the DUP/SF Executive.
It was difficult to get a foothold in a place that isn’t really used to Opposition politics but there were signs co-operation between the parties was starting to come together. We were landing the odd jab.
But then RHI broke, we had an Assembly election and there were signs that the Unionist and Nationalist communities were heading away from the centre-ground parties. Stormont negotiations were difficult and restoration of devolution hadn’t happened before a general election was called.
Theresa May’s decision to call a general election when NI was in that position is one of the reasons I believe she should go. But that’s another story.
What it did mean was that the general election here became the most single-issue election I can remember. It was dreadful.
I knocked on hundreds of doors. One person mentioned God, one mentioned Brexit. That was the sum total of my policy discussions.
The result was that there was a very impressive vote for DUP and SF. The DUP won 10 seats, Sinn Fein won 7 and the remaining seat (North Down) was retained by Lady Hermon (Ind Unionist). The SDLP and UUP were wiped out.
It was a great vote for Unionism in the short term. The DUP has an opportunity to win investment for NI and to advance its own agenda.
The DUP was a Brexit party. But the DUP/SF Executive put together a post-Brexit letter to Theresa May which was very much along what we might term a ‘soft Brexit’ line. They won’t be wanting border checkpoints and tariffs. They were flag-waving Brexiteers, rather than economic ones.
But the DUP have to be careful. They are in a strong position that they can’t waste. It is important that Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds don’t overplay it. If they put Orange Order issues front and centre they risk bringing the house of cards down.
And that would be bad for the DUP.
The DUP don’t want another election any time soon for a few reasons:
- Jeremy Corbyn would be favourite to win any election caused by the collapse of the Tory minority administration. Jeremy Corbyn and the DUP don’t, erm, see eye to eye on constitutional matters.
- The DUP has just enjoyed its own best election. Even without taking into account the maths stacking up in a way that gives them a hand they never imagined (this time, they did in 2015). They have a lead of 53,000 over Sinn Fein. In the March Assembly election it was 1,000. They won TEN seats. They won’t want to risk throwing that away.
- They are in a position of influence it is unlikely that they ever will be again.
I don’t expect the DUP to make demands that the Government can’t deliver on. Red, white and blue meat might be tinkering with the historical enquiries which Unionists believe is targeting former RUC and British Army people rather than trying to bring terrorists to account. I can’t see that being impossible to deliver.
But on bread and butter issues the DUP largely speaks for a relatively poor group of people. Working class Protestants. They would probably vote Labour in GB from a purely economic ground.
Therefore, you may see them push for triple-lock pension guarantees and a serious rethink on the Dementia Tax. If they can make these the headline demands and avoid too many tubthumping sessions, they may be able to assuage fears among the GB centre.
However, DUP MPs are not famous for their subtlety! So it really is up in the air.
As an aside, I must put on record how bloody irritating it is to get ‘who are the DUP’ lessons in the papers and the television from journalists who have clearly just put ‘DUP quotes’ into Google. There are plenty of journalists in Belfast who could give them a more accurate picture. But I guess random Sammy Wilson quotes are more colourful.
I could probably write another 2,000 words but I know NI politics isn’t everyone’s cup of tay. I haven’t covered everything but will try and answer any direct questions below to the best of my ability. With the obvious caveat that I’m not claiming to be an unbiased commentator on this.
Lucian Fletcher is a longstanding contributor to PB