Sam McBride: Just first course of what DUP envisages as a lengthy meal

The key line to understanding how this government is likely to operate is one which was largely passed over yesterday amid the focus on the £1 billion price tag of the DUP's deal.

Tuesday, 27th June 2017, 9:11 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 11:32 am
Prime Minister Theresa May greets DUP leader Arlene Foster, deputy leader Nigel Dodds and MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson outside 10 Downing Street in London

After committing the DUP to support the government in votes of confidence and on supply – the various budgetary votes – as well as on the Brexit legislation and national security legislation, the agreement states: “Support on other matters will be agreed on a case by case basis.”

That might not leap off the page in quite the same way as the £1 billion figure, but it could ultimately cost as much or more – either in cash or in a political price.

What it makes clear is that this deal is only the first couple of courses in what the DUP expects to be a substantial five-year meal, if not a feast.

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The DUP delegation speaks to the media in Downing Street after the deal had been agreed

By only committing to vote with the government in a handful of key areas, the DUP has done little more than agree to sustain the Conservatives in Downing Street.

But there is no point to them being in Downing Street if the government cannot exercise its power, the non-executive aspect of which is wielded in the Commons in the form of legislation.

Every time the government wants to get a major bill through the Commons, it will require either a deal with the DUP or a deal with one of the other smaller parties, each of which is either less amenable to working with the Tories or does not have sufficient votes to make such an arrangement worthwhile.

Yesterday’s agreement gives a template for what is likely to come.

The DUP delegation speaks to the media in Downing Street after the deal had been agreed

Despite the initial misplaced focus on the implications of the DUP’s stances on issues such as gay rights and abortion, the party’s demands were always going to be overwhelmingly financial, as this deal confirms.

The fact that the DUP has secured – and seemingly in a fairly transparent way – an additional £1 billion for Northern Ireland, will be wildly popular with most people on this side of the Irish Sea, even if they are not DUP supporters.

And the party has been shrewd in prioritising – with the exception of the military covenant – financial demands which will benefit all of the community, not just DUP supporters or DUP constituencies.

There is precious little in the document about which Sinn Fein can get angry and the party appeared to be somewhat thrown by the deal, uncharacteristically taking almost four hours yesterday to formulate its response.

The £200 million commitment to infrastructure spending on roads, for instance, suggests a long-overdue upgrade of a traffic bottleneck – the York Street Interchange – where roads from north, south, east and west Belfast converge.

And the £150 million for ultra-fast broadband is likely to particularly benefit rural areas in the west of Northern Ireland which in the last election uniformly elected Sinn Fein MPs.

In the financial detail there is both carrot and stick to persuade Sinn Fein to return to Stormont and thus allow devolution to be restored in Belfast.

The carrot is being able to dole out via Stormont departments the money which the DUP has secured and thereby share in the credit.

The stick is the glimpse into the alternative to Stormont – huge DUP influence in Westminster delivering tangibly for that party and presumably translating into electoral gains for Arlene Foster.

If Stormont is not returned, this money will be spent anyway by direct rule Conservative ministers operating with the DUP at the other end of a phone, if not at their elbow.

And while the DUP has been ideologically restrained in this phase of the negotiation in making few unionist-specific demands, the party could adopt a very different stance if it believes that Stormont is not coming back.

In that scenario – if the DUP is asking for the Parades Commission to be replaced or the definition of a victim to be changed to exclude terrorist perpetrators – it will be more difficult for Sinn Fein to complain.

After all, the party has effectively disenfranchised itself in two places – first in Westminster, where its MPs choose not to take their seats, and then in Stormont where it has also passed up the offer of power.

Just weeks after an election campaign where Sinn Fein assured its voters that Northern Ireland’s MPs would be irrelevant at Westminster so it didn’t matter whether they took their seats, the DUP is demonstrating how power in the Commons can translate into pound coins in Belfast.