Over recent days, as the world’s media tried to understand the DUP it initially focused on the party’s stances on gay marriage and abortion before gradually moving on to correctly identify that its demands of the Tories will be overwhelmingly financial.
But there is more to the DUP than suggested by either the caricature of the DUP as either a bunch of medieval religious zealots seeking to establish a theocracy or of grim-faced Ulstermen with their hands out for money.
The party’s recent manifestos reveal a multitude of policies which would reshape the UK in other ways – and one which would rival the great Victorian engineers for structural daring.
The DUP manifesto for this election gives us the party’s most up to date thinking. In a shock to those who wrote the document, it is likely that the manifesto has been the most widely read such publication in the history of British politics, being downloaded an astonishing 5.5 million times during a six-hour period on election night alone.
Those who have done so will find a mix of populist economic policy, somewhat vague Eurosceptic positions on Brexit – and no mention whatsoever of gay marriage, abortion, Christianity or churches.
From the days of its founder, the late Ian Paisley, the DUP has been critical of the BBC, seeing it as a left-leaning and secular organisation which is hostile to its worldview.
The manifesto pledges to “freeze, then cut or abolish the TV licence fee and reform the BBC”, describing the licence fee as a “highly regressive tax”.
When asked at the manifesto launch if that pledge was in revenge for BBC Spotlight having exposed a series of scandals linked to the party over recent years, there was laughter before deputy leader Nigel Dodds said that it was not linked to Spotlight and had been long-standing party policy.
The document also proposes a major programme to celebrate Northern Ireland’s centenary in 2021, including a public holiday, public art, an ‘Expo’, a centenary wood and greenway, securing major sporting events and awards for centenarians.
The manifesto also calls for the re-naming of the British Olympic team from ‘Team GB’ to ‘Team UK’, to recognise that it represents the entire UK.
And it proposes “improved [energy] interconnection with Great Britain”, something particularly pertinent as the current electricity interconnector has been running at part-capacity for a long time due to problems with the undersea cable.
The manifesto contains a host of pledges on public services, the party’s approach to Brexit (despite frequent mis-reporting that it wants a ‘soft Brexit’, it is ardently Eurosceptic and is likely to want out of the Customs Union), defence and specifically Northern Irish issues.
But context is crucial to understanding the document. This manifesto was drawn up in the unwavering belief that the DUP would not be anywhere near to the position in which it now finds itself. Rather, the focus was on the talks following the election on restoring devolved government at Stormont. For that reason, the first chapter of the manifesto is entitled ‘Restoring devolution now’.
For a better flavour of what the DUP thought about national issues when it believed that it would be in a position to influence such decisions, one needs to look at the 2015 Westminster election manifesto.
As well as giving the firm impression that the DUP’s demands for forming a government will be overwhelmingly financial, that document contains some fascinating insight into wider party policy.
The party put forward a daring proposal which would have physically bound Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
The manifesto committed to “a feasibility study into a tunnel or enclosed bridge across the North Channel from Larne to the Scottish coastline”.
That proposal did not make it into this year’s document, although it retained another less radical pledge to improve links between Northern Ireland and Scotland, with a pledge of an “independent investigation” into ferry price structures on North Channel and Irish Sea routes between Northern Ireland and GB.
And although the bridge proposal is daring, the distance involved is much shorter than that of the channel tunnel. The proposal has in fact been discussed for decades, with a 21-mile bridge from Galloway in Scotland to Northern Ireland proposed by a think tank ten years ago.
Among other commitments in the document are:
• Abolishing the Parades Commission and replacing it with a new structure;
• The Union Flag should be displayed every day of the year from “key public buildings” across the UK;
• Support the expansion of Heathrow - because it is a key transport link to Belfast;
• National UK departments to carry out administrative operations in Northern Ireland;
• Two measures targeted at Sinn Fein – removing Commons expenses from parties which refuse to take their seats and “a level playing field by banning all political donations from outside the UK”, largely targeted at Sinn Fein’s Irish-American fundraising;
• Stronger border controls, alongside “a recognition of the contribution of immigrants”;
• “Fundamental reform of zero hours contracts including the removal of exclusivity”;
• Aggressive measures to stop tax evasion.
And, in one of several commitments which were for the UK as a whole rather than just for Northern Ireland, the manifesto proposed (though it is not in this year’s manifesto) that the rest of the UK should, like Northern Ireland, be exempted from the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, stating: “We want the remainder of the United Kingdom to gain parity with Northern Ireland”.