During the 2017 General Election campaign, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) candidates, including party leader Arlene Foster, stood in front of slogan posters that read: ‘The Party for Northern Ireland’. In 2014, DUP MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) stood in front of campaign posters that said ‘Standing up for Northern Ireland’.
However, many people living in Northern Ireland wouldn’t agree with the message behind these slogans, which suggest that the DUP stands up for the rights and opinions of everyone in Northern Ireland; many groups in the Northern Irish community are entirely unrepresented by the DUP. Not only the Nationalist community, but any middle ground moderates in the country are also unrepresented.
When the election results rolled in after the snap election on June 8, 2017, it was clear that Theresa May hadn’t achieved the result that she had gambled for. The Conservative party obtained 318 seats, losing thirteen of their MPs while Labour won 262, gaining an astonishing thirty-two seats from previously both SNP and Conservative constituencies. The Conservatives lost their overall majority, so for the second time in seven years, we faced a hung parliament.
With 326 seats needed for an overall majority, both the public and the press instantly launched into a debate about how Theresa May could achieve a majority. It was clear that the answer was the DUP. The Conservative party used to be called the Conservative and Unionist party, but that was an alliance with the old Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), not the more hard-line DUP.
The question, ‘what are the DUP’s policies?’, hit the top of the Google search trends in June. Before the election, many English, Welsh and Scottish voters had limited knowledge of Northern Irish politics; with less than fifteen seats it seemed that there was no need to know. However, in June the British public instantly wanted to know the answer to one question: Who are the DUP?The DUP is a relatively new party, formed in 1971, with party leader Rev. Ian Paisley becoming the party’s first MP in Westminster. The popularity of the party gradually grew in response to the Troubles and in 2003, the DUP became the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly with thirty seats and Paisley served as First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2007-8.
During the Troubles, Paisley gained popularity with unionist voters as he took a much more hard-line approach to the conflict. He frequently and aggressively spoke out against the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and regularly insulted the Pope, the Catholic religion and politicians from the Irish Republic. He won support for his self-portrayal as a protector of the Unionist community.
Paisley’s “Never. Never. Never.” speech in 1985 suggested that he would never go into a power share agreement with Sinn Féin, the leading Irish Nationalist party in Northern Ireland. However, in 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed and the DUP went into power with Sinn Féin. The press nicknamed Paisley and Sinn Fein leader, Martin McGuinness, “the Chuckle Brothers” as they often seen laughing in public together and were thought to have a good working relationship.
Any bipartisan elements of the DUP/Sinn Féin relationship have disintegrated since the death of both Paisley and McGuinness and any progress made in the Assembly has come undone. There has been a souring if relationships between the two main political parties since the changes in leadership and this have also been reflected in the polls.
Both the DUP and Sinn Féin gained seats from the more moderate parties in the 2017 election and the results were extremely polarised. Middle ground voters who wouldn’t usually vote DUP or Sinn Féin, appear to have surrendered their votes to the more extreme parties in spite of not agreeing with their policies.
Although the DUP boasts about signing the Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Conservative party after the election, the year-long collapse of their own power-sharing government is something that is left off the historical timeline on their website’s ‘About Us’ page.
Power-sharing in Northern Ireland collapsed when Sinn Féin leader, Martin McGuinness resigned in January 2017 over a long-running dispute about who was responsible for the scandal of a green energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive. The so-called “cash for ash” scheme, set up by Arlene Foster when she was Enterprise Minister, was named “the biggest public finance scandal since devolution” by opposition parties. In many ways, this was an indication of their failure to honour the essence of the Good Friday Agreement where parties agreed to not stand in stark disagreement with one and other.
The scheme, which cost taxpayers £500 million, resulted in McGuinness requesting that Foster step down while an independent investigation took place. The SDLP and UUP also called for the First Minister to stand down. A spokesperson for Foster said the First Minster “does not take instructions from Sinn Féin”.
Sinn Féin claims that the DUP’s deal with Westminster made the party less willing to compromise in Stormont, although they say they will only return to power sharing if the DUP will give way on the Irish Language Act. For over a year now the DUP and Sinn Féin have failed to compromise and put their differences aside and return to power sharing for the benefit of Northern Ireland.
There have been multiple threats that Northern Ireland will return to direct rule from Westminster if they fail to resolve the collapsed government. A non-functioning Assembly meant that the government were unable to reach a regional budget which sparked fears that the local civil services would run out of funds, on the basis that you can’t apportion a budget without a working government.
In an interview on The View from Stormont, Arlene Foster said, “It is not a case of convincing Sinn Féin, it is up to them if they want to continue to block devolution or if they want to come into devolution with us and to work on those issues that matter to everyone. Why should we allow one party to block governance of Northern Ireland? That is wrong.”
Foster insists that she will not agree to a stand-alone Irish Language Act as the current proposals are not “fair and balanced” and reiterates that the language act is “not acceptable to the majority of people in Northern Ireland”. She added: “I respect the Irish language and those who speak it but in a shared society this cannot be a one-way street. Respect for the unionist and British identity has not been reciprocated.”
Ian Paisley, and the party he moulded, adhere to a very dogmatic approach on certain issues which sets the Northern Irish government up for a loss going into any negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Féin.
It is clear that Arlene Foster and DUP MLAs blame Sinn Féin entirely for the failure to return to government and vice versa; however, the DUP has taken no responsibility for their role in the collapse of power-sharing, although the DUP have an overwhelming inability to recognise any Unionist activity which isn’t acceptable to the majority of Northern Ireland.
Another long-standing issue between Nationalist and Unionist parties and supporters has been the Orange Order Parades passing through Catholic areas in Belfast.
The Parades Commission initiated a new set of rules in 2013 that stated that a parade could not pass through the Ardoyne shops and Crumlin Road, and when passing St Patrick’s Catholic church no music should be played. In previous years, violent riots have taken place involving both Nationalist protesters and Orange supporters attacking police at road blocks resulting in many injuries.
The DUP initiated a motion attacking the Parades Commission’s decision to restrict the orange parades passing through Catholic areas. The DUP called for respect for the law and for “tolerance to be shown for everyone’s cultural identity”.
However recently, and without the aid of political parties, local people have been able to settle their differences and come to an accommodation regarding the parades marching through Belfast. There is a lack of violence surrounding the July 12th celebrations which is a big step in the right direction. This is a stark contrast to the deadlock situation between the DUP and Sinn Féin.During elections in Northern Ireland, parties flood the streets with posters on every other lamp post. The DUP candidates posters feature a picture of them with their blue suit or blue and red tie with a Union Jack flying in the background. Sinn Féin posters have gold and green lettering with an outline of the map of Ireland and wording in Gaelic.
These posters with their flags and colours are a way for the parties to mark their own geographical territory. It is also a clear example of what the number one item on their agenda is and are asking their voters to vote based on one thing: Unionism vs. Nationalism. There is obviously complete disregard for the thoughts of the residents of the community who don’t want to have a reminder of the Unionist/Nationalist divide on their front door step.
Jim Wells, DUP MLA, spoke out against Sinn Féin using inappropriate posters at their constituency office in Castlewellan saying, “The Northern Ireland Assembly rules are quite clear. MLAs can claim the rent and rates for an office if it has a sign bearing only the name of the Assembly Member, the Stormont logo and that of his party.” If only the DUP followed these rules and regulations when it comes to their election posters instead of intimidating residents in communities who don’t want their town riddled with flags and posters.
Stormont’s unwillingness to set aside their issue of the Irish Language Act and work together is severely preventing the Assembly from doing its job of governing and improving society for the Northern Irish people. More important issues are overshadowed; issues that the majority of northern Irish people would like to see handled more urgently, for example health, education, infrastructure and employment.Another issue that DUP is hell-bent on not compromising over is legalising same sex marriage. This is another dominant issue that the DUP and Sinn Fein are at odds on.
Northern Ireland is the only country in the UK and Ireland where same sex marriage is banned, despite being the first place in the UK to hold civil partnership ceremonies in 2005. The Assembly has voted on the issue five times and in 2015 the vote for the legalisation of same sex marriage won by one vote. However, the legislation was blocked by the DUP with a petition of concern designed to ‘protect minority rights’.
In a survey carried out by Artefact, 91 per cent of respondents said that they are in favour of the legalisation of same sex marriage, even though 39 per cent of them said they were DUP voters. The DUP are very clear when it comes to their opposing stance on same-sex marriage, “The DUP has a mandated policy to defend the current definition of marriage.”
On BBC Northern Ireland’s Steven Nolan Show Arlene Foster said: “You cannot take away the fact that I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” when asked about why they used the petition of concern to veto the legislation. The DUP constantly reiterate their want to “protect the traditional definition of marriage” whilst avoiding any explanation about why they won’t respect the majority vote.
The ‘Gay Cake’ court case caused widespread controversy and sparked more discussion about LGBT rights across Northern Ireland. After a local Christian owned bakery refused to make a cake for a same sex marriage. The High Court ruled against the bakery on the grounds that they breached equality laws.
The Court says it is the job of the Assembly to decide on social policy; however senior party members in the DUP have called the issue a ‘red line’ in talks about returning to power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
Another controversial position that the DUP holds is their policy on abortion laws. Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are among the most severe in Europe; it is a criminal offence for a woman to have an abortion in Northern Ireland. The 1967 Abortion Act, which is over fifty years old, was never extended to Northern Ireland.
In November 2016, The High Court in Belfast ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion ban breaches international human rights law. Despite this Foster insists that this is another policy that her party are not focused on negotiating in the interest of women’s rights; last year she vowed to prevent pregnancy terminations being made available in Northern Ireland.
Although the DUP signing a deal with the Conservatives would suggest that they are willing to align themselves properly with the UK, it seems that they are only prepared to do that with policies that suit themselves. The DUP have failed to adopt the same social policies as the rest of the UK, such as equal marriage and access to abortion, even though it is clear that the people of Northern Ireland urgent want this social change.After the DUP and Conservatives signed the “cash for votes” deal, in which the Tories had agreed to give an extra £1 billion funding for Northern Ireland, the British public was outraged. There were women’s and LGBT rights marches across the country protesting the DUP’s right-wing stance on equal marriage and abortion.
It wasn’t only the British public on the mainland that were outraged at the DUP/Conservative deal, the Northern Irish people protested at Stormont. Protestors held up signs demanding that the DUP “respect the remain vote” given that a majority of 56 per cent of Northern Irish voters had voted to remain in the EU.
Theresa May made a statement saying, “The government will continue to govern in the interests of the whole community in Northern Ireland.” In the survey carried out by Artefact, when asked if they think the DUP will act in the interest of the whole community in Northern Ireland, 85 per cent of them said no. One respondent told us: “I think the issue is more important than ‘two sides’. There are many within the Catholic community who would agree with the DUP policies on issues such as same sex marriage and abortion.”
However, due to the extreme anticipation surrounding the last election in Northern Ireland, there was a pattern where more moderate voters switched their vote to the more extreme parties due to fear that one or the other would gain a majority vote. Middle of the road parties lost their seats as Northern Ireland voters began voting based on the Unionist or Nationalist branding of the party rather than their other policies.
One of our survey respondents explained: “Honestly, I have to vote for who I want to keep out. I don’t want Sinn Fein in government so the only way to keep them out is to vote DUP. Voting for another party that I actually want in is a waste of time in today’s society and it needs to change.” Many people who voted DUP in the election in June 2017 aren’t DUP supporters and don’t support their policies.
There is a lot of animosity surrounding the Brexit negotiations and the DUPs deal with the Conservatives as many non-DUP Northern Irish voters feel like they will not be effectively represented in Westminster.
The DUP didn’t go into the deal without having specific terms and conditions that suited themselves of course: their manifesto argued that there should be a “seamless and frictionless” border with Ireland. However, the most recent advancements in the EU exit deal suggests that Theresa May might have to reinstate a hard border on Ireland to hold onto any sort of deal. The DUP and Arlene Foster have complained that this is “not fair” as it doesn’t honour agreements made about the border back in December.
Northern Irish voters may be able to better explain what is “not fair” is that there is still no functioning assembly in Northern Ireland and no sign of a reasonable return to power-sharing in the near future.
Many people in Northern Ireland feel they are not represented at all by the DUP, despite their insistence on respecting every culture, religion, gender and sexuality. Their outdated policies fail to respect or include everyone in Northern Ireland.
Arlene Foster’s politics are heavily influenced by her experience in the Troubles, where she and her father were victims of the crossfire between Nationalist and Unionist paramilitaries. However, since the Good Friday Agreement was signed many people in Northern Ireland who have had similar experiences have learned to move on and for the most part live peacefully and without discrimination. It is not possible for Northern Ireland to move on and prosper if the parties in the executive government refuse to put their differences aside and get along.
Although the DUP may have changed in some ways since its birth in 1971, it has always maintained a strong opposition to equal marriage, abortion and Nationalism. The DUP and Sinn Féin’s dogmatism on such issues not only prevents Northern Ireland from moving on to a better consensus for a better future for the country to have equal rights and genuine peace.
Featured image by Dmitry Dzhus via Flickr CC.