Sam McBride: DUP deal is dragging out, but the outcome is assured

Arlene Foster has remained in London after Tuesday's meeting with Theresa May
Arlene Foster has remained in London after Tuesday's meeting with Theresa May

Despite Downing Street having announced last Saturday that a deal with the DUP had been struck, there are now suggestions that no agreement may be finalised this week.

Although the Downing Street statement had been quickly contradicted by the DUP in what appeared to be a shot across Theresa May’s bows, it was still expected on Sunday that a deal was imminent, with DUP leader Alrene Foster flying to London for talks at Downing Street on Tuesday, supposedly to finalise the arrangement.

Despite assurances from all sides that the talks were positive, Tuesday came and went without a deal, as did yesterday. While the tragedy in London may partly explain the lack of an announcement yesterday, the timetable had already been slipping.

Yesterday afternoon, UTV’s well-connected political editor Ken Reid reported that his understanding was that “the chances of an agreement between the DUP and Conservatives this week are highly unlikely”.

Other journalists quoted DUP sources complaining about Treasury “nit-picking” but insisting that the talks were still fundamentally on track. So what is going on?

The DUP officially is saying very little and has been unusually successful in keeping most of its members off the airwaves, lest they say something which might put the agreement in jeopardy.

Mrs Foster has stayed in London, which certainly indicates that the negotiations have not broken down.

The DUP has also already made clear that it will back the Conservatives on at least a confidence and supply basis – the bare minimum to keep the Tories in power and Jeremy Corbyn out of Number 10 – so the ultimate outcome, in terms of backing Mrs May, appears certain.

The delay may point to this being a ‘confidence and supply plus’ deal in which the DUP and Tories agree a limited legislative programme, perhaps on areas such as counter-terrorism, or shared commitments in areas such as maintaining defence spending, a long-standing DUP concern.

Arlene Foster appeared to hint at this when on Tuesday she spoke of counter-terrorism and Brexit as having featured in the negotiations.

The DUP and Sinn Fein are both experts at dragging out negotiations to eke out further concessions to the point that a deadline for a talks process in Northern Ireland is now not taken seriously by the bulk of the population.

But fundamentally in this process, the DUP has nowhere to go.

It dreads playing any role in putting Mr Corbyn into power and therefore at this point its main negotiating hand is time.

In order to restore some of her credibility, Mrs May needs this deal wrapped up urgently whereas the DUP is under less pressure and knows that if Mrs May is toppled as Conservative leader her successor will still need to deal with its 10 MPs.

The biggest pressure on the DUP right now is the danger of a sense taking hold that it is needlessly stalling on a deal and therefore not acting in the national interest.