In position of unparalleled influence, the DUP anoints May

Northern Ireland's unionist MPs find themselves in a position of unparalleled influence, deciding to sustain Theresa May as prime minister after holding the balance of power at Westminster.

Saturday, 10th June 2017, 11:19 am
Updated Tuesday, 13th June 2017, 3:27 pm
DUP leader Arlene Foster (centre) with the DUPs 10 MPs who will support the minority government of Theresa May

An astonishing election outcome has not only shorn Mrs May of her slim majority when she expected it to be increased, but has handed the DUP almost complete control of unionism in Northern Ireland and the role of kingmaker in the House of Commons.

In a result which her predecessor Peter Robinson yearned for but never achieved, it was Arlene Foster – after a tumultuous six months for her leadership of the DUP – who was taking a phone call from a prime minister desperate to keep the DUP on side in order to save her position.

Mrs May later described the DUP as her “friends and allies”.

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Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has obliterated traditional constitutional nationalism. Now the voice of the SDLP will not be heard in the House of Commons, with Sinn Fein stating that its voters now firmly look to Dublin, not London.

Across Northern Ireland, the electoral map has been redrawn.

With the exception of West Belfast and North Down, there is a rough diagonal line running down the Province from Londonderry to Strangford – on the right, the DUP controls all the seats; on the left, every seat is Sinn Fein’s.

It is not yet clear what those parties’ hegemony will mean for the talks to restore devolution, which had been due to resume on Monday.

Speaking in Downing Street after visiting Buckingham Palace, Mrs May pointedly used the Tories’ full title, which includes the word ‘unionist’, saying: “What the country needs more than ever is certainty and having secured the largest number of votes and the greatest number of seats in the general election it is clear that only the Conservative and Unionist Party has the legitimacy and ability to provide that certainty by commanding a majority in the House of Commons.”

The DUP had always made public its loathing for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, meaning that the decision to support Mrs May is itself not a surprise.

That view was yesterday emphasised by DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds who told the News Letter: “Under no circumstances would we consider in any way aiding and abetting Jeremy Corbyn to advance his objectives because the man’s track record of support for terrorism and bloodshed and murder in Northern Ireland, and his record in terms of international terrorism is one that is just appalling and we would never support that.”

However, it is still far from clear if the current arrangement with a slender lead for the Tories, with DUP support, will last for very long. With the clock ticking on the Brexit negotiations and the need for a strong government, there could be a second snap general election in a short space of time.

Sinn Fein’s refusal to take its seats – which have risen to seven – is likely to be raised again and again in coming months if the government wins narrow votes in which Sinn Fein could have reversed the result if it entered the Commons chamber.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: “Nationalists and republicans have turned their back on Westminster and accept that the centre of political gravity is now on the island of Ireland.”

Speaking at a hastily arranged press conference yesterday afternoon, Mrs Foster said she was “truly humbled” by the mandate which her party had received.

Flanked by her 10 MPs, the DUP leader was vague about what her party will request from the Conservatives in exchange for keeping Mrs May in Downing Street.

Citing the threat of terrorism and the Brexit negotiations, she said: “The Union is our ‘guiding star’. We may represent Northern Ireland constituencies in the House of Commons but we are as seized of the interests of the Kingdom as a whole as we are for our small Province.

“I make no apology for saying that the DUP will always strive for the best deal for Northern Ireland and its people. But equally, we want the best for all of the United Kingdom.”

She added: “The prime minister has spoken with me this morning and we will enter discussions with the Conservatives to explore how it may be possible to bring stability to our nation at this time of great challenge.”

Within hours of it becoming clear that the DUP is to sustain the Conservatives in government, senior Tories were facing hostile questions from Westminster journalists about the DUP’s positions on abortion, gay marriage and climate change.

A party which the BBC and ITV shut out of national televised leaders’ debates (despite including Plaid Cymru, with three MPs) suddenly found itself the centre of political attention, with London journalists flying to Belfast in an attempt to understand the party which now holds the balance of power.

The DUP was openly ecstatic at a result which gives it unimaginable political clout at a time of constitutional upheaval.

The DUP’s policy chief, Lee Reynolds, took to Twitter yesterday to wryly remark that the last time he went to London it was to get the think tanks to engage with the DUP but that there had been “limited buy in” at that point.

East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson said his party was in a “fantastic position to deliver for Northern Ireland”. He said: “We have essentially got the result we were campaigning for two years ago.”