Trouble: Putting the DUP In Context

Tom Harrison delves into the political history of the DUP, throwing light on its implications for Theresa May’s government.

The politics of Northern Ireland have always been semi-detached, but since hostilities ended, events across the Irish Sea have received little attention on the mainland; its politics have ebbed from our consciousness. After Theresa May’s electoral backfire it lurched into relevance, Northern Ireland’s deeply conservative, even regressive, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) now hold the balance of power at Westminster. But how can such a party become mainstream in our liberal democracy? The answer lies in the province’s history.

Birth of a Nation

Ulster covenantWhilst the Troubles are still living history, the roots of the DUP lay much earlier, beginning with the granting of limited Irish home rule in 1886. A significant, mainly Protestant, minority resented this, wanting to maintain the union. They formed the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and in 1912 signed the Ulster Covenant, pledging to exclude the province of Ulster from home rule. They successfully lobbied Westminster to allow four counties of Ulster to vote for what was then a six-year exemption. With the island’s status uncertain, volunteer paramilitaries formed; the unionist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the mainly Catholic Irish Volunteers who rejected home rule and favoured independence. At the onset of the First World War, leaders on both sides encouraged their members to join the British Army, believing it would aid their cause.

Tensions at home continued to mount. 1916 saw the Easter Rising in Dublin; a group of Irish Volunteers rose up, demanding independence. Whilst it was quickly quashed and the leaders executed, it lit a flame. The British government blamed a fringe political party, Sinn Féin, whose popularity exploded. The party was quickly taken over by the leadership of the Irish Volunteers, which soon changed its name to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), making it the de facto political wing of the resistance to British rule.

With Germany defeated the paramilitaries intensified their guerrilla campaign, now staffed by well trained, battle hardened soldiers, fresh from the Great War. After success at the 1918 general election, Sinn Féin declared independence in January of the following year, sparking the Irish War of Independence.

In an effort to allay unionist fears the British government passed its final act on Irish home rule, splitting the island into Northern Ireland, made up of six, mostly unionist, counties of Ulster, and the mainly Catholic nationalist Southern Ireland. Most nationalists opposed partition and in the context of the Ulster Covenant, many unionists felt betrayed, particularly those in the three counties of Ulster that fell beyond the partition. War ended with the declaration of the Irish Free State, but the Parliament of Northern Ireland successfully petitioned the king to exempt the North, which remained within the UK under home rule.

The Royal Irish Constabulary reformed as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), but few Catholics joined and many of the new recruits were UVF members. This created a climate of fear, particularly for Catholics, further entrenched by the fifty years of UUP government that followed. Gerrymandering, restriction on voter franchise and the abolition of proportional representation ensured unionist control of areas with Catholic, nationalist majorities. Catholics were also discriminated against in employment, particularly in heavy engineering and the public sector, which were dominated by unionists. This led to increased poverty among Catholics, and a feeling of marginalisation. Many emigrated, further entrenching protestant, unionist domination.

Trouble Brewing

In the 1960s, the moderate Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, attempted reform but was roundly opposed by his unionist base. One of his greatest critics was founder of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, Ian Paisley, who in 1966 founded the Protestant Unionist Party, the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC) and the paramilitary Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV) in protest, having founded the protestant fundamentalist Ulster Protestant Action (UPA) vigilante group a decade earlier. In response nationalists, including John Hume, formed Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). Initially, their campaign of civil disobedience was peaceful but was increasingly met by violence from the police, UPA, UPV, UCDC and unionist gangs, particularly around Derry. The UPV even blew up water and electricity installations in their attempts to frustrate change and in 1968 a convoy of Paisley’s men armed with ‘nail‑studded cudgels’ halted a civil rights march in Belfast.

When, in 1969, a Protestant parade was routed through the Catholic Bogside area of Derry, the mounting animosity erupted into a three-day riot, spreading throughout the province. In Belfast barriers were erected to separate unionist and nationalist communities, many of which still stand to this day. Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, James Chichester-Clark, dismissed the rioters’ concerns in parliament, calling them “hooligans”, sparking Taoiseach Jack Lynch to order the setting up of field hospitals across the border, saying in a television address “it is evident that the Stormont (Northern Ireland’s parliament) Government is no longer in control of the situation”, describing the riots as inevitable “in light of the policies of successive Stormont Governments”. The RUC deployed armoured cars, live ammunition and over 1000 canisters of CS gas in an attempt to quell the riot, but at the request of the Unionist government, Westminster deployed troops to the province and two weeks later control of security was passed from Stormont to the British Army. Paramilitary activities intensified, taking Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war. Convinced that the Stormont government was not capable of returning the province to order, Westminster introduced direct rule in 1972, dissolving the parliament of Northern Ireland a year later. The Troubles had begun.

Sinn Féin was banned during this period and many nationalist parties boycotted the parliament. Today, most unionists have admitted that the government between 1922 and 1972 was discriminatory, with former UUP leader, David Trimble, describing Northern Ireland at this time as a “cold house for Catholics”. Many senior DUP politicians refute this.

Causing Trouble

In 1971 Ian Paisley’s Protestant Unionist Party, which campaigned for preferential treatment of Protestants in employment and total freedom for Protestant Orange Order parades, was wound up. Undeterred, Paisley entered into negotiations with former UUP firebrand and ex‑UPA colleague Desmond Boal about forming a new party committed to maintaining unionist domination. They founded the DUP.

Image: Ardfern

Image: Ardfern

After the collapse at Stormont, the British government entered into talks with all sides in an attempt to quell the violence, leading to the declaration of a ceasefire by the Official IRA in 1972 (having already split from the Provisional IRA) and the Sunningdale Agreement to establish a power sharing government between the UUP, the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the non-sectarian Alliance party. The Provisional IRA stepped up their campaign in opposition and many unionists, including Paisley, were appalled at the inclusion of the nationalists in government.

Although pro-Sunningdale parties had a solid majority in the assembly, the DUP were narrowly elected as the largest party to oppose the agreement and promptly formed the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) with the other anti-agreement unionists, going on to win eleven of the twelve seats in the 1974 general election, including one for Paisley, and a narrow plurality of the vote in Northern Ireland. Emboldened, the UUUC organised a general strike which was enforced by the unionist paramilitaries; blocking roads, intimidating workers and even detonating four car bombs in the Republic. After fourteen days the agreement collapsed and the DUP had established themselves as the major dissenting voice in the unionist movement.

In response, the UK government set up a Constitutional Convention in 1975 to find a political settlement, but the UUUC won a majority and opposed any form of power sharing, demanding a return to majority rule. Under such intransigence, the body was dissolved and the next decades saw the Troubles thunder on, there were successive fits of talks and violence, but no lasting peace.

With paramilitaries escalating attacks outside of Northern Ireland, Margaret Thatcher believed direct negotiation would no longer work and began negotiations with the government in the Irish Republic. At the commencement of talks, Paisley and the DUP created a volunteer militia, Third Force, to ‘aid’ the police and army in fighting the IRA. They organised armed rallies, posing with weapons certificates in military formation. After a DUP organised day of action, Paisley declared, “this is a small token of the men who are placed to devastate any attempt…to destroy the Union”, going on to threaten unilateral action to destroy the IRA. By the end of 1981 he claimed a strength of 20,000 men.

After several false starts the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed, supported by the SDLP (whose leader John Hume was instrumental in negotiations) and Alliance, as well as the main parties in the UK and Ireland, with the aim of promoting cross-border co-operation in the pursuit of peace. It assured Northern Ireland’s status would not change without the consent of the citizens, gave the Irish government an advisory role on some matters in the North and proposed a new power sharing executive. Unionist MPs reacted by resigning their seats in protest and Paisley founded the Ulster Says No campaign of civil disobedience. Paisley claimed in front of a crowd of over 100,000 that the Republic was a haven for terrorists going on to pronounce “Mrs Thatcher tells us that that Republic must have some say in our Province. We say never, never, never, never!”

Ian Paisley during the DUP campaign against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Image: Burns Library

Ian Paisley during the DUP campaign against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Image: Burns Library

The DUP opposition to the agreement moved from political action towards more militant direct action, with Paisley avowing “this could come to hand-to-hand fighting in every street in Northern Ireland, we are on the verge of civil war”, going on to say “we are asking people to be ready for the worst and I will lead them”. On 23 June 1986 DUP politicians occupied Stormont, whilst supporters clashed with police outside, requiring their forcible removal. Two weeks later Paisley led 4000 supporters to occupy the town of Hillsborough, where the agreement had been signed a year earlier. This was followed by the DUP’s most provocative action yet, with deputy and future leader Peter Robinson crossing the border with a few hundred others and mounting a unionist ‘invasion’ of the village of Clontibret, damaging property and attacking police officers.

Throughout their campaign unionist militants attacked the homes of over 500 RUC police officers, forcing 150 from their homes. Later that year Paisley, Robinson and other senior DUP politicians announced, dressed in military berets, the formation of the Ulster Resistance Movement (URM) to “take direct action as and when required”. Over the next years the URM, along with other Unionist paramilitaries, smuggled in vast quantities of arms and in 1989 attempted to trade British missile blueprints for weapons from apartheid South Africa. The DUP claim no knowledge of this deal and the evidence is circumstantial, but the DUP did send a delegation to South Africa earlier in the decade and the father of the now Belfast South MP and then special adviser to Ian Paisley, Emma Little-Pengelly, was convicted of involvement.


Nonetheless, by the end of 1994 the major paramilitaries had all called a ceasefire, fatigued by war the appetite turned to peace. The DUP were initially involved in US brokered negotiations, but demanded the IRA disarmed before Sinn Féin were allowed to participate (unionist paramilitaries were still armed), by the time the Good Friday Agreement was put to referendum, the DUP were the only major party to oppose it. The agreement would see the Republic amend their constitution, removing their claim over the North, and the foundation of a power sharing government of Unionists and Nationalists but it also allowed for the early release of paramilitary prisoners, involvement of the Republic and allowed Sinn Féin to hold office without the IRA disarming, a price the DUP could not accept.

After passing with 71% of the vote, the DUP were able to paint themselves as the voice of the 29%, the lone resistance, winning 20 seats in the assembly as the 3rd party. They took two seats on the executive, led by the UUP and SDLP, but refused to sit at meetings in protest at Sinn Féin’s participation. The war was over but the peace was far from won.

When the executive collapsed over spying allegations the province reverted to direct rule from Westminster. Nonetheless, the signatories rallied, with another election set for 2003 but moderate parties lost out; the DUP won the most seats and a quarter of the votes, with Sinn Féin overtaking the SDLP as the largest nationalist party. The DUP continued to oppose power sharing, releasing plans for a “fair” system of devolution, prompting Enoch Powell’s former constituency agent (post-Rivers of Blood), Jeffrey Donaldson MP, to defect from the UUP and Basingstoke MP Andrew Hunter to join too, making the DUP Northern Ireland’s largest party in Westminster. This was reinforced in 2005, as they were returned half the seats in Westminster and were the largest party in council elections.

Nonetheless even the DUP were moving toward peace, entering into talks with the British and Irish governments, about an arms-for-government deal. The talks were unsuccessful but it was a start. A year later the IRA announced an end to their armed campaign and the British Army announced their impending withdrawal. The unionist paramilitaries followed two years later.

Jim Allister, Image: Joshua Hayes

Jim Allister, Image: Joshua Hayes

After all-party talks in St Andrews, the impossible was achieved. Sinn Féin and the DUP agreed to form a power sharing administration. The party issued a letter of consultation to the public, which was narrowly supported, but not all the DUP’s supporters were happy; many felt betrayed by what they saw as the legitimising of nationalist violence and the party’s only MEP, Jim Allister, resigned to form the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Nonetheless, in 2007 Ian Paisley took office as the First Minister with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, as the Deputy First Minister, Paisley described it as the start of the road to “lasting peace”. Nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers, the two leaders struck an unlikely friendship and the administration of historic adversaries was remarkably successful. Far from their paramilitary pasts hindering them it gave them the gravitas to command their communities, the public felt if Paisley and McGuiness could reconcile then they could too. They had walked the same road from different sides, meeting half way.

The Long Shadow of Ian Paisley

The DUP was growing, but was still very much Ian Paisley’s DUP. The 81 year old was First Minister, Party Leader, an MP, a member of the Stormont Assembly (MLA) and, as he had been since 1951, head of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. In 2008 he stepped down as party leader and First Minister in favour of long time deputy Peter Robinson, having resigned from his position as head of the church earlier in the year. His health failing Paisley resigned as an MP in 2010, and as an MLA in 2011, joining his wife in the Lords and finally departing this earth in September 2014.

Whist Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster has always been fairly fringe, the majority of the DUP’s senior members are part of the congregation and this informs the policy. The church’s teachings are highly literalist and vehemently anti-Catholic, Paisley repeatedly called the pope the antichrist, once even being removed from the European Parliament for heckling John Paul II. DUP policy is strongly anti-blasphemy, against abortion in almost all cases and disavows the science of anthropogenic climate change.

Some of their most shocking views are on homosexuality. Having previously set up the anti-gay Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign, senior figures have been extremely outspoken on the matter. Current MP Ian Paisley Jr said “I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism, I think it is wrong” and that they “harm society” and creationist MP, David Simpson, said in a parliamentary debate “in the Garden of Eden it was Adam and Eve, it wasn’t Adam and Steve”, feelings echoed by fellow MP, Gregory Campbell, who has described homosexuality as an “evil, wicked, abhorrent practice” and former Stormont health minister, Jim Wells, has said children who were raised in a homosexual relationship were more likely to be abused or neglected, although he later apologised. In 2014 they even tabled a bill to allow people to be exempted from equality legislation in the case of a ‘strongly held religious belief’.

Whilst firmly establishing themselves as the main unionist party, the DUP post‑Paisley has been in near perpetual scandal. In the MP’s expenses scanda, it was revealed that Deputy Leader, Nigel Dodds, had the largest claim of any MP in Northern Ireland and that the Robinson and his wife, Iris (who was also a DUP MP and MLA), had claimed a combined £720,000. In 2010, allegations of serious financial misconduct were made against the Robinsons, relating to infidelity by Iris. This resulted in Peter Robinson losing the parliamentary seat he has held for 31 years to Alliance, although the DUP’s performance elsewhere was strong.

This was followed by allegations DUP ministers had influenced decisions relating to the awarding of a £8 million housing contract to a unionist firm. A DUP councillor was subsequently suspended for publicly alleging a DUP colleague had coerced her to change her vote. Amid mounting pressure Robinson stepped down at the end of 2015 to be replaced by Arlene Foster, a former solicitor who had crossed the floor from the UUP in 2003.

Arlene Foster, Image: Northern Ireland Office

Arlene Foster, Image: Northern Ireland Office

With a change of leader the scandals did not abate. In 2015 MP Jim Shannon topped the list of parliamentary expenses, having to return nearly £14,000, and is currently under investigation for his 2016 expenses. Paul Girvan MP is currently embroiled in a scandal regarding £1.9 million of grants given whilst he was an MLA, and Sammy Wilson MP was caught allegedly agreeing with a member of the public who said the government needed to “get the ethnics out”, although he denies this.

The defining scandal of Foster’s leadership, however, has been that surrounding her own management of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). As Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, she failed to introduce proper cost controls, allowing people to make a profit from simply heating their building, leading to inappropriate uses and causing the cost to spiral to £490 million. Foster refused to stand down during any inquiry, as Robinson had before her, feeling that implied guilt. In protest Martin McGuiness resigned as Deputy First Minister, bringing down the executive and returning the province to direct rule.

The Price of Power

After calling an election she couldn’t lose, Theresa May has lost her majority and now the DUP hold the Conservatives’ metaphorical testicles in a vice. Despite spending the election campaign saying they would work to keep Corbyn out, now they have been called upon the DUP need to negotiate power. They know the Conservatives won’t walk away, terrified at the prospect of a new election and Corbyn in Number 10; they know they can name their price.

For now the DUP seem satisfied with £1bn of investment in the province’s infrastructure, £100 million pounds for each vote, but as the government’s grip on power becomes more tenuous and their votes ever more crucial that price might increase. This would help the DUP, and the province, but this would further undermine the government’s fiscal credibility, particularly as they cut public services elsewhere. In the long run it could be counterproductive, undermining the government’s austerity agenda, as rogue Conservative MPs demand a similar price for their support of the government.

As negotiations progress they may start to a change to the Conservatives’ Brexit plan. Whilst the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain, the DUP have always been against the UK’s membership of the EU, spending millions throughout the UK to secure an exit. They’re likely to push the government for a fairly hard Brexit but even they can see that a hard border must be avoided, however they will be hard-nosed on what that looks like, likely eschewing immigration checks on travellers to the mainland or anything else that lessens the union or points to a united Ireland. This could open a back door into the UK mainland, something that would be unpopular with many in Westminster.

They could even demand a rolling back of rights: Theresa May has often repeated her support for a repeal of the Human Rights Act and in the DUP she would find a willing accomplice. Given their views they may want changes to UK law surrounding abortions or rolling back on protections for the LGBT community, even if it’s just an exemption for Northern Ireland.

If they really smell blood they could start demanding changes to the peace process, to skew it in their favour, if talks in Stormont falter they may even paint it as common sense. Even demanding something as seemingly innocuous as an end to restrictions on protestant Orange Order parades, something the DUP have previously described as ‘fascist’, could lead to Sin Féin disengaging and begin a spiral back to the dark days.

Coalition of Chaos?

Putting aside that many find the DUP’s policies reprehensible, the problem with them being in government is that a key challenge for the next Westminster government is the mediating of Stormont negotiations. Whilst negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, Martin McGuiness asked that the other participants, “let us walk into the conference room as equals and not second class citizens”, it is difficult to see how that is even possible if that government is indebted to the DUP. John Major has made clear he believes it contravenes the UK government’s “rigorous impartiality” required by the Good Friday Agreement, and Sinn Féin have made clear that they agree.

Even if the agreement were transparent, other parties are likely to cry foul, feeling the DUP have access to back channels the others don’t and seeing any concession to the DUP as preferential treatment. By contrast, as soon as the DUP feel they might have to make concessions they can tug the forelock of the Conservatives and threaten to bring the government down. If others are asked to make concessions they will assume the mediators are acting under the DUP’s duress, Gerry Adams has already suggested as much, referring to the “tail wagging the dog”.

It doesn’t help that the Conservatives have just fought an election campaign in which they routinely and lazily equated Sinn Féin with the IRA in an attempt to smear Jeremy Corbyn, not a point that what would not have endeared Sinn Féin to the negotiating table, even if the Conservatives had won a majority.

Martin McGuinness with new Sinn Féin leader Michelle O'Neill, Image Sinn Féin

Martin McGuinness with new Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill, Image Sinn Féin

But the real challenge any government faces is that nothing has changed. The subsequent assembly election saw a slight rise in popularity for the nationalist parties, but the DUP are still the largest party and no party changed by more than a few percentage points. Arlene Foster has repeated that she won’t step away and Sinn Féin have reiterated that they won’t return to government until she does.

It highlights the fundamental problem of the Good Friday agreement; it forces parties into coalition, whether those parties agree or not. This is laid bare now that the more moderate SDLP (who historically aligned with Labour) and UUP (who historically took the Conservative whip) have been replaced by the more hard line parties. If you strip away the sectarianism, Sinn Féin is a fairly liberal and radically socialist whilst the DUP is a broadly right wing and deeply socially conservative, reconciling those two positions into a functioning government is nigh on impossible. Add the sectarianism and the job gets a whole lot harder.

Winning the peace

McGuiness passed away just months after stepping down as First Minister and with the two figureheads now gone it’s difficult to see a resolution in the near future. The main party leaders today are from the generation defined by the Troubles, but not from the generation that commanded it. They can’t command communities in the same way as Paisley, McGuiness, Trimble and Hume.

Some will say the DUP are what happens when you mix politics with a fringe evangelical church, but perhaps it’s what happens when people get scared. Repeated polls have shown most people in Northern Ireland don’t agree with the policies so many on the mainland find objectionable, on LGBT rights, climate change or abortions, but they trust them to defend the union to the very end. They are paralysed between fear of creeping nationalism and a return to widespread violence.

Whilst sectarianism permeates every issue it is difficult to see how a functioning government can be formed in Northern Ireland, particularly with the Good Friday agreement stifling any effective opposition. In Westminster the Troubles seem a long way away, but on the ground the peace is yet to be won; there are still walls separating communities and violence is routine.

Indebted to the DUP and with a truculent Sinn Féin, Theresa May’s government has an almost impossible task; to try and negotiate a new St Andrews Agreement, maybe even a new Good Friday Agreement, all while negotiating Brexit.

Theresa May is playing with fire and something’s going to burn.

Tom Harrison is the Warwick Globalist’s Webmaster and was previously the Editor in Chief, he has now graduated in Automotive Engineering with Sustainability. 

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