Alvin Jackson is Sir Richard Lodge Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of numerous books on modern Irish and British history, including The Two Unions: Ireland, Scotland and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707-2007 (OUP: 2013)
Theresa May’s courtship of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the prospect of a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, have provoked a storm of protest. The DUP’s historic opposition to gay marriage, its opposition to abortion under most circumstances, and its reported stands on a range of other social issues have caused widespread anger and dismay, especially among those Tories (like the triumphant Ruth Davidson in Scotland) who have worked for a more liberal and modernised party appeal. Other accusations have been thrown, including climate change denial and dogmatic creationism. In addition, while the DUP has publicly eschewed paramilitaries, it has taken little journalistic effort to uncover a variety of associations between current (or recent) party leaders and past militant activity. On the face of it, the DUP looks to some very much like the parliamentary bed-fellow from an alt-right hell.
Some aspects of this charge-sheet are more telling than others. Arlene Foster has been indicted for perpetrating a massively expensive environmentalist error in the ‘ash for cash’ scandal (this was the publicly financed scheme, overseen by Foster as the responsible minister, whereby Northern Ireland businesses were encouraged, by generous subsidy, to use renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels). Yet at the same time she and her colleagues are accused of Trump-style climate change denial.
They are also soft Brexiteers rather than dogmatic super-patriots – because while they continually fret about the challenges in Ireland to British identity and its expression, they also look to constituencies which have done rather well hitherto out of the economic opportunities created by the European Union. Many thousands of the DUP’s farming vote are dependent for a living on the payments generated by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Moreover, an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has brought commercial benefits to tens of thousands of Irish people, including DUP supporters. In other words, dogmatism on the European Union threatens to upset the very delicate balance between British patriotism and economic self-interest which sustains key sections of the DUP’s base.
It is often said that the DUP are products of their historical context, but this is a matter not just of religion but of political economy. For the half century since the ‘troubles’ began in Northern Ireland, it has been the part of the United Kingdom most dependent upon the public sector and upon Westminster subsidy. The DUP are advocates of small business, but they are emphatically not proponents of the kinds of neo-liberal austerity politics associated with a succession of Tory manifestos. Their pitch to Theresa May has been at root about more, rather than less, state spending – in keeping with the norms of Northern Irish public finances.
Unionism in Ireland was certainly forged in association with the consolidation of conservative evangelical religious cultures; and the influence of these, once significant within Britain and still so in the USA, remains evident throughout Northern Irish protestant and unionist society. Not the least of the bitter ironies of modern Irish history is the extent to which Irish protestants (taken as a whole) have complained about the illiberal social policies (on, for example, divorce) introduced in the early years of the independent Irish state, and associated with the teaching of the Catholic church – while seeking simultaneously to reinforce their own chosen forms of moral and religious authority in Northern Ireland. However, as the prominent gay rights campaigner, and unionist councillor, Jeff Dudgeon, has pointed out, there is evidence of increasing social liberalism (or at any rate pragmatic acceptance) – especially among young DUP voters, but even within its current leadership.
What of the DUP’s whiff of sulphur? – the militancy with which their founder, Ian Paisley, flirted in the 1960s and afterwards, the armed invasion of Clontibret, Cavan, organised by his successor as leader, Peter Robinson in 1985, and the numerous associations, alleged or otherwise, of current DUP politicians? Aside from paramilitarism, republicans routinely emphasise the involvement of DUP elders like Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the local crown forces (such as the UDR or police). All this, it is argued, underlines the extent to which the DUP are deeply problematic allies for the Conservatives in the new House of Commons.
This may indeed be so, though the accusations may also partly reflect the retaliation of the Corbynistas for the sustained excavation of the Labour leader’s links with Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA in the era before the Peace Process. It is also of course the case that Mrs May is following a path traversed by her predecessors: earlier Tory and Labour prime ministers, like John Major and James Callaghan, looked to unionist support for their survival. But the Conservative party has been associated with unionist paramilitarism from the time of the debate on Home Rule which raged before the First World War. Between 1912 and 1914, as in 2017, senior Tories swallowed their reservations about the religious zealotry of ulster unionists, and embraced not only their public militancy, but also (in the case of the pre-war Tories) the unionists’ mass importation of weapons into Ireland. Theresa May’s predecessor as Tory leader, Andrew Bonar Law, was almost certainly deeply complicit in the illegalities of Irish unionism, and most certainly provided his unqualified public support.
Mrs May’s party has thus very dangerous form in the area of unionist militancy. However, it is unlikely that she will allow her own electoral calculations to impinge upon the delicate political settlement in Northern Ireland (and unlikely that she will be asked to do so). Nor will she be compelled to create a religious fundamentalists’ pre-Wolfenden dystopia. Mrs May will in fact be able to hang on for the cost of a few shiny new roads and hospitals, a slightly more humane approach to the elderly, and a significant softening of the hardline on Brexit. A small bill to pay, it would seem, compared with the civil war and constitutional subversion with which some of her predecessors flirted as the price of power in 1914.