How a Small Northern Ireland Party Became a U.K. Powerbroker

The unexpected rise of the DUP

The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Arlene Foster, and the Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds, stand on the steps of 10 Downing Street before talks with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May on June 13, 2017.
The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Arlene Foster, and the Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds, stand on the steps of 10 Downing Street before talks with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May on June 13, 2017. (Phil Noble / Reuters)

A fiercely socially conservative party founded by a Protestant religious radical and sworn to defend Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom has unexpectedly found itself holding the balance of power in Britain.

This is the result of a snap election called by Prime Minister Theresa May in a botched attempt to increase her majority and strengthen her hand for looming Brexit talks with the European Union. Instead she lost seats, forcing her to look for a coalition partner to get the parliamentary support she needs.

Enter the Democratic Unionist Party. It was founded by the firebrand Ian Paisley in 1971 at the height of the Northern Ireland conflict, which entailed some three decades of violence between the province’s largely Catholic nationalist minority and largely Protestant unionist majority. The nationalists sought to leave the United Kingdom and unite with Ireland; the unionists sought to keep Northern Ireland in the U.K., where it remains. Over 3,500 people died in the conflict between the two sides. The DUP emerged the biggest pro-British party in the province after a 1998 peace deal, the Good Friday Agreement, brought an end to most of the violence. The party is now seen as the voice of conservative unionist opinion.

For many in Britain, waking up to the election results to find the DUP on the verge of national power came as a shock.

The DUP, like Northern Ireland as a whole, has been largely out of sight and out of mind in Britain as long as the province remained peaceful. The first reports that May might invite the DUP to talks to form a government prompted a flurry of internet searches in Britain; the party became the most frequently looked up in the U.K. after the election, according to Google Trends. The DUP’s website crashed due to the demand.

British news organizations rushed out explainer articles to introduce the party to their readers; at least one journalist mistakenly referred to them as “Ulster Unionists”—a rival party.

Jon Tonge, a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool who co-authored a book on the DUP, suddenly found his expertise in demand. “No one really knew or cared about the DUP. But on election night as the arithmetic began to stack up, suddenly the DUP were the only people who could get the Conservatives over the line and everything changed,” said Tonge, who has been doing continual interviews since.

“A lot of places in England are utterly ignorant about Northern Ireland and its politics. People scrambling around to find out about who the DUP are. ... I mean, the DUP have been around since 1971. The level of ignorance is something else.”

Siobhan Fenton, a freelance journalist from Belfast, described being confronted by a surprising lack of knowledge in the moments before going live on a radio show for the BBC—Britain’s public broadcaster. “One of their researchers, who is very informed in politics and current affairs, asked me: ‘So: unionists are the Catholics, and nationalists are the Protestants, just to check just before we go live,’” Fenton recalled. (The opposite is the case.)

“I had to do a 20-second history of the Troubles and cross-community relations before it started, which was slightly stressful. I’ve had to explain to journalists what is the Good Friday Agreement,” Fenton added. “It can be slightly terrifying.”

Yet the party found itself the unaccustomed center of British attention, and perhaps not the kind it would like. The London-based media soon began raking up the DUP’s awkward aspects: an endorsement by loyalist paramilitaries; an environment minister who was a climate-change denier; an MP who called homosexuality “immoral, offensive and obnoxious.” Opposition lawmakers attacked May’s decision to court the party. Even a former Conservative prime minister, John Major, warned that a deal to bring the DUP into the government risked destabilizing peace in Northern Ireland.

It was an ironic turnaround to the lack of attention Northern Ireland got during the campaign. The DUP, like every other Northern Irish party, was not invited to take part in the flagship pre-election debate on the BBC, even though three other parties with fewer seats in parliament were included.

This has left Britain facing the prospect of a government supported by a party whose policies are largely unknown to the public.

So what does the DUP want? The party’s primary political motivation is defending Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom—a position opposed by the region’s nationalist parties, which won 41 percent of the vote in Northern Ireland compared to unionist parties’ 46 percent. Theresa May has an affinity with the DUP here: Her party's official name is the “Conservative and Unionist Party.” The 2017 DUP manifesto also had much in common with the Conservative manifesto, calling for increases in the minimum wage and defense spending.

The DUP’s main differences with its putative coalition partner are economic. The DUP opposes the Conservative proposal to limit protections on state pensions  and is generally less inclined toward fiscal austerity. “They might be right-wing on some social issues such as same sex marriage and reproductive rights, but they tend to be more center and to some way center-left on the economy,” explained David McCann, the deputy editor of the Northern Ireland current affairs website Slugger O’Toole. “They are very populist. They have no qualms about big public spending projects.”

While the DUP is a staunchly ideological party, its record in Northern Ireland shows pragmatism and political cunning. In recent years, it has managed to defend its dominance as the largest unionist party while simultaneously striking deals with its most bitter historic rival, Sinn Féin.

And when the DUP negotiators emerge from talks with Theresa May in the coming days, there is one prize they are almost certain to walk away with: more spending for Northern Ireland. “The Conservatives are pretty desperate to be frank and effectively the DUP can name their price,” Tonge said; May’s party is keen to avoid another election in which their rivals in Labour could make further gains. “The British government is used to writing expensive checks for Northern Ireland.”

On social issues, it is unlikely to want to extend Northern Ireland’s conservative laws to the rest of the U.K. (it is the only part of the U.K. not to recognize gay marriage, and to severely restrict abortion).

On Brexit, the DUP’s influence will be less clear. It was the only major party in Northern Ireland to campaign for Brexit, and staunchly supports leaving the EU, even though a majority of voters in the province voted to remain in it. Those hoping for a so called “soft Brexit” drew hope from DUP leader Arlene Foster’s insistence that she does not want a hard border with the republic of Ireland (an EU member with a high level of public support for membership of the bloc). Any introduction of a barrier would be deeply politically contentious, and a major practical challenge on a jagged, 300-mile boundary with hundreds of minor and major crossings that divides two highly interconnected economies.

However, Theresa May’s Brexit minister David Davis insisted on Monday that the U.K. will leave the single market—the union that allows for the free movement of people, goods, and services across borders, including the one that runs through the island of Ireland. It is unclear how a hard border could be avoided if Northern Ireland is outside the single market and Ireland is within it.  Politicians on all sides have called for “creative solutions” but have given no clear details on how the passport controls, customs, and veterinary inspections for animals that are required at other EU entry points could be avoided. Brexit negotiations with the EU are due to start within days.

May’s reliance on the DUP to rule also has big consequences for Belfast.

Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly Stormont—an institution founded during the peace process that forces nationalists and unionists to rule together over matters like education and health—collapsed in acrimony in January and has yet to be re-established. The British government is supposed to be a neutral arbitrator to negotiations to forge a new deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP. But being in government with the DUP damages its credibility in this role, adding greater uncertainty to an already delicate process.

There could be more trouble ahead if the DUP begin to make demands that would be popular with their pro-British, unionist electorate but deeply contentious with Northern Ireland’s mostly Catholic nationalist community. “The DUP say there have been far too many investigations into what British soldiers and the British state did more broadly in the conflict. They effectively want almost immunity from prosecution for soldiers,” said Tonge. Or the party could  use its power to challenge the Parades Commission, the body that regulates the triumphant street demonstrations loyalists regard as a treasured part of their culture but that often antagonize their nationalist neighbors. The Parades Commission has curtailed some parades that passed close to or through nationalist areas.

“The longer the Conservatives try to stay in power without an election, the more the DUP can ask for,” Tonge said. “Once they've trousered the economic goodies, then the next items on their shopping list could be conflict-related issues, could be Protestant unionist British issues. It's at that point that things become much more fraught.”