Forget the SNP: what about the DUP?

Peter Robinson at a DUP party conference. The leader of the 4th largest party after the last election may become a key presence in any coalition talks after May 7.Peter Robinson at a DUP party conference. The leader of the 4th largest party after the last election may become a key presence in any coalition talks after May 7th (Source: DUP)

The next general election is less than a month away, and although everyone is as ignorant as each other about what will happen once the country goes to the polls on May 7th, everyone has their own prediction. What will Sturgeon offer? How will the Greens do? What are the chances of a Conservative-UKIP deal? And just how do you pronounce Elfyn Llwyd?

You might notice, however, a striking omission from all this guesswork, or at least a gross underrepresentation – but I doubt you will, because outside of its regional heartland no-one really talks about it. This is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest party in Northern Ireland, the fourth-largest political grouping in the last Parliament (with 8 MPs) and the great unknown quantity in the Parliament after the general election of 2015. Despite their absence from much of the punditry on the election, the DUP’s solid representation ensures it a presence in the post-election negotiations.

The polls (such as they are) indicate that the DUP will take at least eight and perhaps as many as nine seats in the election, half of Northern Ireland’s eighteen seats: the remainder would be split among the various Irish nationalist parties. The DUP is also running against Lady Sylvia Hermon, who holds North Down as an independent unionist with a majority of 14,364 votes; it is unlikely that she will lose, but unionist competition in North Down could split her vote significantly. To see how this fits into the result, it’s worth looking at the forecasts for the parties in the rest of Britain, and a good example is the academic prediction from Polling Observatory on April 8th, which gives the following results and ranges for the 632 seats in England, Scotland and Wales:

Labour—276 (252–302)
Conservative—271 (244–298)
SNP—49 (35–56)
Lib Dems—27 (21–34)
Ukip—3 (1–4)
Others—6 (4–8)

Meanwhile, the FiveThirtyEight prediction gives Labour 274 seats, with the Conservatives on 284, the Liberal Democrats on 28 and the SNP on 41.

At first glance, the DUP’s 8–9 seats pale into insignificance next to the significant projected SNP and Lib Dem groupings, and it is undoubtedly the case that the Scottish issue will loom much larger over the negotiations after the election than the Northern Ireland settlement. Look again, though, at Polling Observatory’s predictions about the possible parliamentary pacts to allow either the Conservatives or the Labour Party to form a workable government:

Conservative options according to Polling Observatory forecast.

Figure 1: Conservative options according to Polling Observatory forecast. Source: Observatory

 Labour options according to Polling Observatory forecast.

Figure 2: Labour options according to Polling Observatory forecast. Source: Observatory


Although mention is made of the possibility of Labour making a deal with the SDLP, a nationalist party, the SDLP already routinely take the Labour whip in Parliament and are very unlikely to get more than three seats. No mention whatsoever is made of Labour partnering up with the DUP, but with Labour and the Liberal Democrats seeking DUP support, the three parties combining their strength could command a narrow, but workable, majority of just over the crucial 323-seat margin (as Sinn Fein’s five MPs do not take their seats and the Speaker votes only to break ties in favour of the status quo). If we generously suppose that Labour could get 285 seats and the Liberal Democrats could hold steady at 30, those eight or nine DUP seats would be just enough to put Ed Miliband in Downing Street. Among the many hypotheses about this election, such a result is one of the less outlandish: a Labour-SNP deal would be fraught with problems from the outset, and the Conservatives have a great deal of trouble finding allies. On current polling, even a Conservative-Liberal Democrat-DUP-UKIP grand alliance would find a majority very difficult to achieve.

So why is the DUP ignored as a potential partner for Labour? The DUP is often pigeonholed as a ‘right-wing’ party: it is fiercely Eurosceptic and strongly supportive of investment in the armed forces. It is infamously opposed to most iterations of LGBT rights, having opposed the equalisation of the age of consent in 1998, civil partnerships, same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples; Iris Robinson, former MP for Strangford and wife of Peter Robinson, the party leader, famously called homosexuality “viler” than child sexual abuse and recommended that gay people receive psychiatric treatment; at present, the party is introducing a ‘conscience clause’ at the Northern Ireland Assembly to give religious people the ability to opt out of complying with equality legislation. Like same-sex marriage, abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland largely due to the DUP’s strongly Presbyterian influence, as well as an unholy alliance with the Catholic Church and the nationalist (and largely Catholic) Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

This does not give the full story, though: the DUP draws most of its support from the Protestant working class (Evans and Tonge, 2009), and opposes the underoccupancy penalty (or ‘bedroom tax’) while advocating for major public investment in Northern Ireland. In other words, they may be very socially conservative, but this does not go with any kind of embrace of Thatcherite economics, as Nigel Dodds told the New Statesman in February. In this respect, then, it might be helpful to draw a comparison between the DUP and the grassroots of UKIP, with its fierce opposition to same-sex marriage and hardline, socio-cultural opposition to immigration, and to strongly conservative commentators like Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips. It is very likely that in order to make a deal at Westminster, the DUP would demand that its moral positions are not interfered with by its senior partners.

To that end, Nigel Dodds laid out his party’s list of demands for a pact at Westminster in March, including meeting the NATO target of military spending at 2% of GDP, reviewing the underoccupancy penalty and pushing for EU treaty changes to curtail freedom of movement. This is big talk from a party which will not have enough seats on its own to guarantee either Labour or the Conservatives a place in 10 Downing Street. What is much more likely is that Dodds and his team will hold out for whichever party can give Northern Ireland the best deal in terms of public investment. Northern Ireland wants a nice big barrel of pork much more than it wants Treaty change or good relations with NATO. In an interview with the Independent, Ian Paisley MP, son of the late lamented Reverend Dr Ian Paisley, named his price: £1 billion.

If Dodds and his negotiators will be holding out for the biggest lump of cash either Labour or the Conservatives will give, who is more likely to give it? The answer, obviously, is Labour: the Conservatives have been at the forefront of slashing public sector jobs in Northern Ireland over the last five years, which have fallen by over 10,000 since the last election. The deadlock talks concluded just before Christmas 2014 in the Stormont House Agreement anticipate a further loss of 20,000 jobs over the next four years, as the Northern Ireland Executive came under pressure from Westminster to reform welfare and cut its budget.To change tack after the next election could make things difficult for their commitments to deficit reduction and would entail going back on the pressure which locked the Northern Ireland parties in negotiations for almost a year. Moreover, as the diagram above from Polling Observatory shows, a failure to achieve Liberal Democrat support would make it very difficult for the Conservatives to achieve a majority, with DUP support or without.

The question is whether Labour can afford to be tied to the DUP. Labour’s left are already a rowdy problem for Ed Miliband, as Jack Monroe’s defection to the Green Party in March over the party’s positions on immigration and welfare demonstrated.  For Labour to tie itself formally to a party that actively opposes LGBT rights and legal abortion in Northern Ireland would not be easily worn by a lot of activists, though Northern Ireland’s low profile since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 has kept these issues out of the spotlight in the rest of the UK. Moreover, it is quite likely (as Professor Jonathan Tonge argues) that the DUP’s real red line would be a moral non-interference commitment from its senior partner: Labour might not get much choice in the matter.

One can only speculate about what this might mean for Scotland. The cultural exchange between Scotland and the area that is now Northern Ireland goes back, formally, to the Plantations of the 17th century; informally, the roots go back to time immemorial. As the SNP, sitting on somewhere between 40 and 50 seats at Labour’s cost, sees a government being formed over its head with another regional party, it is far too early to say how they might respond. Moreover, Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, has said that his party would refuse to support a government being propped up by separatists, not to mention the SNP’s extremely different take on social issues like abortion. Much of Labour’s parliamentary party would be much more content to sign up to the SNP’s anti-Trident “red line” than the DUP’s nuclear enthusiasm: 75% of Labour’s PPCs oppose Trident renewal, and the UK’s nuclear arsenal is likely to become a crucial election issue in Scotland.

All that is certain, though, is that the commentariat’s relentless focus on the potential for a Labour-SNP deal is misplaced. Miliband has options, despite the probability that the SNP will roast his party north of the border, and the DUP deserves more attention than they are receiving at the moment. Far from being just a party of ignorant racist hicks, as they are so frequently caricatured, they are a ferociously efficient election-winning machine headed by a team of extremely intelligent negotiators – and they could prove the key to the deadlock in May. Ken Clarke once said that one can always do a deal with an Ulsterman. Next month, that adage might be tested like never before.

  • Mervyn

    Excellent piece – diligently researched, well written and refreshingly presented!