Their deal with the Tories is an Indian Summer. Winter is coming for the DUP

by Kevin Meagher

‘Fashions change but style remains’, Coco Chanel was said to have remarked, (somewhat incongruously for a fashion designer). The point is germane to Northern Ireland. Don’t draw big conclusions from immediate contemporaneous events. Stand back and look at the wider picture. Ignore passing fashions.

There is an emerging narrative that the DUP is on the up after the hiatus of the Renewable Heat Incentive fiasco at the start of the year, the subsequent resignation and untimely death of Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein’s surge in March’s elections to the Northern Ireland assembly.

Arlene Foster is still standing, winning two extra parliamentary seats in the recent general election and has managed to strong-arm a generous financial deal out of Theresa May’s weak and wobbly government in return for backing it on tight votes.

She is on top – so the argument goes – having wrong-footed her opponents, most notably Sinn Fein, whose policy of abstentionism and self-removal from the parliamentary fray contrasts unfavourably with the DUP’s realpolitik in making Westminster bend to its will.

It’s a fashionable argument, by which I mean it is entirely wrong.

Take a step back.

The gap between parties supporting Irish unity and those wishing to maintain the constitutional status quo with Britain was as close as 30,000 votes in elections to the assembly back in March. Unionism is in long-term decline, standing on a burning electoral and demographic platform.

Already, a majority of Northern Ireland’s under-35s are Catholic, providing Unionists with an impossible medium-term challenge in fending off Irish unity. Given Sinn Fein is not calling for a border poll for the next five years, there is ample scope to construct a majority for change by the mid-2020s, now the prospect is truly out in the open and the benefits of reunification are widely discussed.

For Unionism, winter is coming.

Moreover, much of what was contained in Arlene’s deal with Theresa May was in the post in any event. The government was always going to help underwrite the proposed cut to corporation tax next year, while improving superfast broadband coverage and creating enterprise zones as part of city deals for Belfast and Derry is a flat-pack Whitehall offer that has already been rolled out to many English conurbations.

That said, Arlene should bank the cheque. It’s unlikely the deal will not be honoured beyond a subsequent election.

After all, just look at the reaction to it on this side of the Irish Sea.

The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, immediately telephoned Theresa May to seek assurances that the arrangement with the DUP would not involve concessions on LGBT issues, before promptly leaking the story to the media in order to distance herself from Arlene Foster.

Other Conservatives are equally embarrassed at the tie-up with their Ulster cousins. Justine Greening, the education secretary, who confirmed last year that she was in a same sex relationship, said the DUP’s views were ‘clearly a concern for people like me.’

Most significantly, former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, said the deal actually imperilled the ‘fragile peace’ in Northern Ireland, not just the political talks.

While former Conservative Party Chairman, Lord Patten, who knows a thing or two about Northern Ireland, having led the review that that recommended disbanding the RUC, warned Theresa May that hooking up with the DUP and their ‘toxic brand’ risked making the Conservatives seem like the ‘nasty party’ once again.

In case we forget, these guys are supposed to be Conservative and Unionist party.

The Daily Mirror even ran a front page story featuring Peter Robinson in his fetching red beret from his Ulster Resistance days with the header: ‘Coalition of Crackpots’. If unionists ever wonder how they are perceived in Britain, I expect this is a pretty close approximation.

As for Arlene herself, there is the small matter of the RHI Inquiry, headed by retired judge, Sir Patrick Coghlin. To coin a phrase, it hasn’t gone away you know.

Last week, he confirmed that his team has now issued 320 notices for evidence, legal writs demanding papers and witness statements. Any illusions Arlene Foster and the DUP may have had about whether this matter would be swept under the carpet have just been roundly disabused.

Indeed, the political pain of the scandal is back-loaded.

As the enterprise minister who introduced the Renewable Heat Incentive, it seems inconceivable that blame will not land at Foster’s door when the report is finally published. In due course, Martin McGuinness’s resignation in protest at Foster’s belligerent handling of the issue will seem sagacious and principled.

In her speech to the assembly last December trying to explain the mess, Foster blamed her officials, exculpating herself from the British tradition of direct ministerial accountability, twisting and turning on the head of a pin like, ironically, an Irish government minister in a tight spot.

2017 will be seen as the year when Foster and the DUP had a rally after a difficult start, but could not sustain their advantage, as they say at Wimbledon. It will also come to be seen as the point where Irish unity reached terminal velocity, becoming an unstoppable argument just as political unionism begins to wane.

Arlene and the DUP should enjoy their moment while it lasts. After all, that’s the problem with fashions.

They quickly fade.

Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about,’ published by Biteback


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2 Responses to “Their deal with the Tories is an Indian Summer. Winter is coming for the DUP”

  1. John P Reid says:

    You assume that catholic,is will all vote Sinn Fein, I know many who vote alliance, hold their nose vote UUP or SDLP, they know where their bread is buttered.

    Ironic a catholic brought up to be against abortion would be anti DUP, and even if Sinn Fien support abortion, why would they want a United ireland where abortions is also illegal
    the RUC got a communal George cross just before their reneging into being the PSNI, as for the DUP deal ,thank Allah, that labour never be thought of doing a deal with them 2years ago…

  2. Tafia says:

    Kevin, your line For Unionism, winter is coming is highly doubtful in the next few decades at least.

    Ireleand will remain divided until the people of the North decide to vote themselves into the Republic AND the people of the Republic vote to allow them. From the perspective of the North, that would mean convincing the ordinary workers that is is a remarkably good idea to join a country with no NHS, a hugely smaller oublic sector and a population thatbelieves small state is good, smaller state is even better. For the Republic’s part it would mean their people voting to allow in a province that is economically a basket case with a large and belligerent anti-Republic population who, because of the fractious nature of the Republic’s politics, woul;d most of the time hold the balance of power over who forms the government in Dublin.

    But just the simple reality of a massively smaller welfare state and no free NHS is more than enough to make sure unification will not happen in my lifetime.

    Oh, by the way, the Labour Party is unionist is it not? It opposes Scotland breaking away e’tc etc.

    Your views on Northern Ireland are obvious just from your name.

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