On Monday my iPad’s news app pinged me several global headlines, including the following: “Theresa May and Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster conclude agreement, party’s support is bought for GBP 1.5 billion to government of Northern Ireland”
With devolved government in rolling crisis, particularly in healthcare, it looks contrary to begrudge any additional cash; but any unionist should worry about the word “bought” in that headline, for it is true, and reflects the view of the British public.
The DUP have emerged with some positives.
I wanted to see guarantees on veterans and assurances on Brexit regarding the border and agriculture. If we were going to ask for money, funding for mental health was the most justifiable.
We have these, and credit is certainly due.
With some of these amounts being repurposed sums already provided for, there might be about half a billion pounds of genuinely new money – maybe enough to cover the liability from the RHI scandal.
Beyond this, the DUP’s demands for £2 billion, as if an inevitable consequence of the government needing support, and their dragging out of negotiations beyond Her Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech, does not evidence shrewd brinkmanship from seasoned negotiators.
It was characteristically short-sighted, grasping and damaging to the Union.
Why do I say this? Theresa May is our most pro-Union PM in decades; under pressure from all sides; her main opponent a Marxist IRA sympathiser, and increasingly popular; Britain’s hand weakened by this election as she started EU negotiations.
The DUP could have stepped up, normalised Northern Ireland in the eyes of the public, and demonstrated the Union was indeed their guiding star. Instead, they reflexively asked to see the chequebook.
Unless the sums were offered for free, we must conclude the DUP was prepared to walk away and let Corbyn try for a government, or a new election.
This will have further corroded the natural sympathy many MPs and members of the British public have for the Province.
We are indebted by £11 billion a year to this same British public. This is more than the net figure the UK sends the way of the EU. At some point, English taxpayers will take notice.
A unionism worthy of the name will care what the other 63.3 million of us think.
We remember Cameron and Brown campaigning in Scotland, begging voters to vote ‘No’ to independence. Do any of us really think mainland MPs would beg us to stay if we had a border poll?
Is that their fault, when all they see from our politicians – even our unionist ones – are demands for more money?
We can expect no sympathy the next time the shoe is on the other foot, and decisions are being made on our behalf – and this will be soon, for the next crisis is always around the corner.
Having not realised we won the argument, unionism is contriving to lose it in the long term.
Although support for a united Ireland has flatlined at below 20%, we are now treating every election as effectively a border poll. We’ve a first minister who surpasses even Paisley at getting people out to vote for Sinn Fein (whom, by the way, increased their MPs from four to seven, very handy for the DUP in future election campaigns).
We are following a script which is alienating us from the rest of the UK, and each other. Who needs nationalism to undermine the Union, when you have unionism this cynical?
At Westminster, the wiser heads in the DUP must restrain the urge to issue an invoice every time their support is sought in the Commons.
At Stormont, if there is no willingness to take difficult and necessary reforms, it is time to let others govern.
I am glad there is a deal. If the DUP spend this money (and the block grant) as it’s intended, govern and speak in a tone which doesn’t alienate any remaining moderates in the Province, resist this push for an Irish Language Act, and act without a whiff of impropriety, we may be optimistic.
But their and Sinn Fein’s record of the last ten years – crises, missed opportunity, scandal, aversion to statesmanship, mismanagement of finances, health waiting lists – does not give us hope.
An extraordinary general election result and a gift of cash doesn’t change that.
• Carl McClean is an Ulster Unionist councillor for Bangor Central in North Down and Ards Borough Council