From Daniel Finklestein in THE TIMES, 23 October 2019
We have all been trying to find something in Brexit that can unite us, heal us, bring us all together. We haven’t done too well so far. But I’m excited to say that I think I’ve found a contender: we can all agree that we have had enough of the Democratic Unionist Party. Not Unionism or the Union. The DUP.
Now, I use the word “all” loosely. Nigel Dodds, the party’s leader at Westminster, likes the DUP. And his wife likes the DUP (probably). The rest of us, however? Not so much.
The reputation of the DUP is that it’s a tough deal-making party. Yet to be a deal-making party you sometimes have to deal. Instead, the DUP is a party that likes to say no. It can be persuaded to say yes only when someone asks whether it would like to spend some public money.
So the DUP said no to the European Union. Britain’s decision to leave the EU, of course, has big consequences for the Republic of Ireland. Some voters in mainland Britain and even some politicians might be forgiven for overlooking this since Ireland is not a priority for them. They might not have thought through the impact Brexit would have on our neighbour. The DUP leadership does not have that excuse. For them Ireland is a priority. So they must have known that there were consequences. Leaving the EU means that for the first time we will be in a different customs area from Ireland.
This leaves three options: create a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland; agree a compromise in which the whole UK remains in the customs area until we find technical solutions to avoid a hard border (broadly Theresa May’s deal); or agree a compromise in which different arrangements for Northern Ireland align it more with the EU and place checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (broadly Boris Johnson’s deal).
Those — if you say no to EU membership — are the only options. And the DUP has rejected all of them. It has said no to a hard border, no to the May deal and is now saying no to the Johnson deal. It has abstained on no-deal, presumably worried that if it said no to no-deal then the double negative might mean that it had accidentally said yes to something.
During the debates on the government’s withdrawal bill it may be persuaded to say yes to a second referendum and yes to the customs union, even though its actual view is no to both. This is simply because it has seized on the idea that saying yes to these things might be the best way of saying no altogether. If someone actually asked DUP leaders if they really, properly wanted a second referendum they would say no, and if there ever is one, they would vote no in it.
When speaking of the Johnson deal, the DUP MP Ian Paisley this week used the term “no surrender” that was associated with his father, the Rev Ian Paisley, the booming cleric who founded the DUP in 1971 upon the rock of no.
Paisley Sr came to prominence by saying no to the modest Unionist reforms advanced by the Northern Irish prime minister Terence O’Neill. Responding to limited attempts to ameliorate bigotry and discrimination against Catholics, Paisley marched in protest, calling O’Neill “the traitor and the Lundy”, a special Northern Irish term for a particularly bad betrayer.
O’Neill was driven out in 1969. The BBC’s Spotlight on the history of the Troubles, which has just been shown (and which, by the way, everyone should watch) reveals that the authorities believed Paisley was entangled with organisations carrying out the violent attacks that helped tip O’Neill out of office.
So the DUP was created and began its progress, not as the Unionist ally of Conservatives but as the resolute opponent of conservative and official Unionism.
In 1973 came the Sunningdale agreement — an attempt to create an executive for Northern Ireland with power shared between the two communities, nationalist and Unionist. The DUP, of course, said no. Paisley took the lead and a strike was organised and enforced with a generous helping of loyalist intimidation that ended power sharing.
The DUP also said no to the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. And for those talking about what does and doesn’t break the Good Friday agreement it is worth noting that the DUP said no to that too. It also said no to abortion, no to gay rights, even no to rock music. “Rock music is satanic,” Paisley said, “and those who have studied it have proved that conclusively”. In 1998 the DUP said no to Elton John playing in Stormont. “We don’t like poofs,” said Paisley Jr.
A full decade after the Good Friday agreement, Paisley Sr, charmed by Tony Blair, finally entered the power-sharing devolved government. Blair’s negotiator Jonathan Powell describes the whole negotiation as torturous, delayed for years by Paisley wanting photos of the IRA decommissioning its weapons so that it might be humiliated. Even then, Paisley’s biographer David Gordon says that his DUP followers found the one political yes of the reverend’s career pretty hard to take and it contributed to his retirement a year later.
Although the DUP now says no to any arrangement that treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK it hasn’t always been purist about that. When it was in power in Stormont it also said no to the way Great Britain handled its renewable heating incentive scheme. What would be the point of devolved government, it decided, if it was just going to do the same as London?
As a result it created a vast scheme of its own in which people were paid more money to heat their business premises than it cost them. It would have paid you to put radiators on the outside wall. Companies began promoting the scheme under the slogan “Ash for Cash”. Hundreds of millions of pounds were lost.
No one much cared about the scheme when they thought the British Treasury was paying but as it became obvious that this wasn’t the case, the whole thing became a massive scandal. Arlene Foster, by then DUP leader and first minister, had earlier been the energy minister who introduced the catastrophic scheme without grasping the details. She overlooked warnings and her adviser had been installing his own boiler and claiming the money. But she said no to taking responsibility and no to resigning. As a result the Northern Ireland executive collapsed.
These are the people to whom the mathematics of the Commons has given such great leverage. But do any of us have to like it? No.