Henry Hill: As a Tory unionist, I believe that the DUP could have done more to build bridges with the Conservatives

The general election marked the closing of many chapters in our political life.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 27th December 2019, 4:02 pm
Updated Friday, 27th December 2019, 7:08 pm
Nigel Dodds earlier this year and other then DUP MPs, from left, Jeffrey Donaldson, Jim Shannon Gregory Campbell and Emma Little Pengelly, on the House of Commons opposition benches: "Despite undoubtedly sincere convictions on the Union and much else, the DUP's parliamentary conduct was essentially mercenary. And as they are now learning, an army does not die on a hill for the sake of its mercenaries."
Nigel Dodds earlier this year and other then DUP MPs, from left, Jeffrey Donaldson, Jim Shannon Gregory Campbell and Emma Little Pengelly, on the House of Commons opposition benches: "Despite undoubtedly sincere convictions on the Union and much else, the DUP's parliamentary conduct was essentially mercenary. And as they are now learning, an army does not die on a hill for the sake of its mercenaries."

Some form of Brexit, which for a while seemed in doubt, is now assured.

Change UK are winding up, bringing an end to the mainland’s experiment with an NI21-style centrist disaster.

But it has also brought a close to the Democratic Unionist Party’s brief ascendancy as the kingmakers of the House of Commons.

Theresa May with Damian Green (right), Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds, as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson shakes hands with Tory Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, in Downing Street for the DUP-Conservative deal in 2017. "In Theresa May the DUP faced a prime minister who was not only an instinctive unionist in a way that Boris Johnson isn't, but who could surely have found much in common with Arlene Foster"

Even before the election the consequences of this waning of influence were clear in Boris Johnson’s willingness to abandon his professedly iron-clad opposition to a border in the Irish Sea.

Now that he is returned with the largest Conservative majority since the Eighties, and House of Commons votes have returned to being non-events, this trend is likely only to continue.

Unionists have every right to be aggrieved at this Tory u-turn, and as a Tory myself I’m not here to defend it. But we should not forget, whilst dusting off that old Carson quote or complaining about the threat that ‘English nationalism’ poses to the Union, that the fault for the failure of this relationship lies on both sides of the Irish Sea.

It is difficult to overstate just how extraordinarily well the stars lined up for the DUP after the previous election. The results were such that a party which on a good night just about breaks into double-figures was the key to a Conservative majority in a 650-seat House of Commons.

Boris Johnson with Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster at the 2018 DUP conference in Belfast where he spoke out against any internal UK border. "Unionists have every right to be aggrieved at him abandoning his professedly iron-clad opposition to such a border but the fault for the failure of this relationship lies on both sides of the Irish Sea" Picture Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

The sudden resurgence of the Scottish Tories gave the party a clutch of new allies inside the Tory tent and pushed the Union up the agenda.

Moreover, in Theresa May they also faced a prime minister who was not only an instinctive (if sometimes inept) unionist in a way that Johnson isn’t, but who could surely have found much in common with Arlene Foster, the DUP leader. (Imagine David Cameron trying to work with Peter Robinson in mathematically similar circumstances.)

All of this, combined with the fact that having backed Brexit the DUP were by necessity committed to a national policy, meant that there may have been a real chance to re-forge the working relationship between capital-U Unionism, which fell apart during the seventies and eighties.

Yet the DUP did not take this opportunity. Whilst the full details of the negotiations between the two parties ae not yet known, several sources have set out to me that the Conservatives offered the DUP a much deeper and more comprehensive arrangement — including perhaps a formal coalition — than eventually emerged.

Henry Hill, the assistant editor and home nations correspondent for the website ConservativeHome

The path the DUP took instead was certainly a cannily-negotiated tactical victory. They not only secured £1 billion of British investment in Northern Ireland, they also ensured that it would all be delivered by 2019, allowing them to go back for more in the event that the May government lasted more than two years.

Broader questions about what Northern Irish unionists might have gained by playing a full and formal role in a UK government are a matter for another day. But even on the narrow question of Brexit it is increasingly obvious that the DUP’s choice, whilst a tactical success, was a strategic miscalculation.

Their being outside the government did not prevent the voters from holding them accountable on December 12. But it probably made it much harder for them to win and strengthen the loyalty of their Conservative allies.

Even without a formal coalition, DUP MPs could have chosen to sit alongside their Tory counterparts on the government benches, building the personal relationships which could have been pivotal.

Instead, and despite what are undoubtedly sincere convictions on the Union and much else, their parliamentary conduct was essentially mercenary. And as they are now learning, an army does not die on a hill for the sake of its mercenaries.

As a unionist, I don’t want to see our Northern Irish counterparts consigned once again to the margins of British politics: absent from our conferences, tucked away in the ‘Others’ corner of the Commons, and lumped in as ‘the Northern Ireland parties’ on election night.

I believe that strong mainland sympathy is, along with unionist support and nationalist toleration in Northern Ireland itself, one of the three pillars on which the Union rests.

It has been too long neglected: Ulster unionism has too often walked away from British political institutions, never to its long-term benefit.

The DUP want the prime minister to build a bridge across the Irish Sea. It can’t be ruled out, as Boris Johnson is fond of such grands projets. But more important are the bridges that unionists on both sides of the water have failed to build – indeed, have often burned – over the past 50 years.

Such connections are the real sinews of the Union, for which Carson’s Causeway could stand as a symbol but not a substitute.

The good news is that work on those bridges could start right away. Better late than never.

• Henry Hill is the assistant editor and home nations correspondent for the website ConservativeHome