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May’s DUP bribe alienates rest of UK

Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP | UK Prime Minister Theresa May and DUP leader Arlene Foster, le 26 June 2017.
4 min

UK Prime Minister Theresa May's deal with Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party gives her minority government backing on key votes - at the cost of annoying British voters on all sides.


The DUP are canny negotiators, hardened by a decade of deal-making over Northern Ireland’s current arrangement of devolved government, after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended sectarian violence.

A telling joke circulating amongst British politicos is that May should get the DUP to negotiate Brexit for her.

They dragged out negotiations for over two weeks. On 10 June Downing Street announced a deal. But the DUP immediately poured humiliating cold water on May. They insisted that talks were ongoing.

UK Coalition Deal: DUP signs agreement with May's Conservatives

The now finalised deal centres on a £1 billion bung of extra public spending for Northern Ireland from the Westminister purse.

The DUP’s confidence seems in short supply in this “confidence and supply” arrangement -- a new deal will have to be drawn up for the next session of parliament in 2019. This furthers annoyance in the rest of the UK over the DUP -- the recipient of 0.9% of the overall UK vote in this month’s election (yes, you got that: 0.9%) -- holding the government to ransom.

'Socially conservative and economically illiberal'

The key to understanding the DUP is that it is “socially conservative and economically illiberal", in the words of Professor of Politics John Curtice of Strathclyde University. In light of last week’s deal, both of these DUP stances are vexing to voters across the political spectrum in the rest of the UK.

Secular Great Britain is even more bemused than it is angered by the DUP’s social attitudes. Dominated by evangelical Protestants, the party keeps abortion and gay marriage banned in Northern Ireland.

To emphasise that the DUP will have no say on these matters in the rest of the UK is to miss the point. Social liberalism dominates left and right on the mainland. It is thus galling for English, Scottish and Welsh taxpayers to give extra money to Northern Ireland on the dictates of a party whose social attitudes they broadly regard as both offensive and odd.

Many regard Northern Ireland as culturally alien. They see its union with Britain as a good idea for the simple reason that most Northern Irish voters want to stay part of the UK. Unlike the DUP, they do not regard it as a sacred, sacrosanct bond.

Alienating the Tory base

The Southeast of England is a key part of the Tory base. Including London, it is the UK’s economic powerhouse. It has a bigger GDP than Indonesia. In the latest financial year of available figures, 2015-16, each Londoner gave £3,070 more in tax revenues than they got back in public spending. The rest of the Southeast ran a surplus of £1,670 per capita. In contrast, Northern Ireland took a whopping £5,440 more in services than it contributed in taxes per person. That is why prosperous Tory core voters -- across England but in the South East especially -- do not take kindly to May sending even more of their money to Northern Ireland.

They are already exasperated at May for campaigning on the Conservatives’ most left-wing economic platform since Edward Heath. In London particularly, they are also already annoyed at May’s headlong dive into "hard Brexit". Hence the Conservatives’ loss of Kensington – the UK’s richest constituency. Such voters associate the DUP’s politics with May’s interventionist economic policy and advocacy of hard Brexit: they see all three as damnably retrograde.

The Corbyn factor

Left-wing voters in Great Britain are inclined to see fiscal transfers to unprosperous Northern Ireland as fair redistribution of wealth. But they are angry that, for the sake of her government’s survival, May is giving extra funding to Northern Irish hospitals, for example, when hospitals in England, Scotland and Wales are under considerable stress but will receive no extra money.

Britain owes its hung parliament to an unexpected electoral surge by Jeremy Corbyn’s  Labour. That in turn owed much to many voters’ feeling that seven years of austerity has been enough. In this climate, largesse for Northern Ireland and leanness for Great Britain does not go down well.

After calling an early general election expecting a sweeping mandate, only to be left clinging to power by her fingernails, Theresa May is a humiliated figure. As public annoyance mounts over her £1 billion DUP bung, she can only expect further humiliation.

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