Sam McBride: DUP slow to come to ailing May’s aid

The DUPs talks with the Tories are now well into a second week
The DUPs talks with the Tories are now well into a second week

A month ago tomorrow, DUP leader Arlene Foster made an unusual political move – in the midst of the DUP’s own campaign, she travelled to London to effectively campaign for Theresa May.

In a speech to the Bruges Group, Mrs Foster acknowledged the rarity of what she was doing, saying: “Political leaders from Northern Ireland understandably often remain neutral, at least publicly, about the outcome of a Westminster general election.”

She went on: “But this election is different. While Theresa May is well within the political mainstream and has proven herself to be a solid and reliable unionist, Jeremy Corbyn is beyond the proverbial and the political pale.”

From that point, what had been overwhelmingly likely had become explicit: even though at that point no one expected a hung Parliament, it has since then been clear that if that eventuality arose then the DUP would unquestionably support Mrs May to be prime minister.

Therefore, the DUP’s behaviour since the election is, on the face of it, somewhat puzzling.

Assailed from all sides, shorn of her two key advisers and under immense pressure, Mrs May is in the fight of her political life.

Rather than come to the prime minister’s aid in her hour of acute need by rapidly agreeing a deal which would give her a clear Commons mandate, the DUP appears to be showing little urgency about closing the deal.

There are suggestions that the Treasury – particularly given that Mrs May now has a tense relationship with her chancellor – has been slow to sign off on the financial aspects of the deal.

But, given the DUP’s long experience in negotiations of both instigating and facing from rivals the tactic of holding out to the last minute for further concessions, there has to be a strong suspicion that the party is largely responsible for the delays.

Even if the Treasury is stalling on the finer detail, Mrs Foster or Nigel Dodds could have publicly made clear – either in a joint press conference with Mrs May or on their own – that the deal is agreed in principle.

As it is, Mrs May is now facing the very obvious criticism that if she can’t close a deal with a regional party of 10 MPs which campaigned for her, what chance does she have of emerging with a good deal from the Brexit negotiations?

Yesterday, the blogger Guido Fawkes reported “growing unrest among Tory backbenchers about the way the negotiation [with the DUP] has been handled”.

The Conservative Party has a reputation for ruthlessness and the DUP is showing that it can be similarly hard-nosed.

If it extracts significant benefits for Northern Ireland from this process, even many non-DUP voters on this side of the Irish Sea will be delighted.

But there is also a tension in this negotiation between the DUP’s unionism and its Ulster nationalism, which has always been a part of the DUP’s ideological DNA.

From a purely Northern Ireland perspective, whatever the DUP can get from London should be grasped. But from a unionist point of view, there is the danger that if the Province is seen to be unfairly gaining while other parts of the UK are asked to tighten their belts that it builds resentment towards Northern Ireland and fuels nationalist sentiment, particularly in Scotland.

Mrs Foster acknowledged as much in her London speech last month, saying that although “the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not under threat in the short term”, there was the danger that “if we take the wrong turn, we could see everything we hold so dear under threat in the years to come”.

When she uttered those words, Mrs Foster had Jeremy Corbyn in mind. But there is the chance that if the DUP is perceived to be overplaying its hand then it will inadvertently stoke anti-Union sentiment elsewhere in the UK.