Northern Ireland Unionists turn kingmakers after UK election

Prime minister Theresa May has turned to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for support after losing her parliamentary majority in Thursday’s election.
Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Arlene Foster addresses journalists in Belfast, Northern Ireland, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Liam McBurney
Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Arlene Foster addresses journalists in Belfast, Northern Ireland, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Liam McBurney

Belfast // British voters have been frantically Googling the name of a small Northern Irish party whose 290,000 votes and 10 seats in parliament hold the balance of power in the national parliament representing the UK’s 65 million people.

Prime minister Theresa May has turned to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for support after losing her parliamentary majority in Thursday’s election, throwing a spotlight on the party’s deeply right-wing outlook.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said she would start talks on propping up the Conservative party, declaring that keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom would be “our guiding star”.

DUP seats would be enough to give Mrs May’s Conservatives a working majority. The precise nature of the relationship they are targeting is not yet clear.

The DUP now finds itself a long way from its foundation in 1971 by firebrand Protestant evangelical preacher Ian Paisley to defend Northern Ireland’s union with Britain against demands for a united Ireland.

Early in his political career, the colourful cleric became a byword for bigotry and intolerance of Catholics.

The party is now more secular and attracts a wider demographic than when it was founded, shifting from fundamentalist outsider to political pragmatists.

However, its roots are apparent in its vehement opposition to gay marriage, abortion and Irish language rights.

And although it has a female leader, it remains an overwhelmingly male, white bastion and is certainly more conservative than the Conservatives.

Ms Foster did not elaborate on the DUP’s wish list of concessions but it will likely try to extract more money from the central government for public services in Northern Ireland.

The party will also probably seek more guarantees for agriculture post-Brexit to assuage the concern of farmers after the current deal runs out in five years’ time.

The DUP, however, will have to contend with the new political realities in Northern Ireland where concern about Brexit and the possible return of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland have raised fears.

Catholic Irish republicans Sinn Fein won seven of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats in the 650-member British parliament, with a sitting independent unionist winning another, as more moderate Irish nationalist and British unionist parties were wiped out.

Sinn Fein does not take its seats in the British parliament, with MPs refusing to swear allegiance to the queen. This is the first time since 1964 that there will be no nationalist representation in the Commons.

In the South Belfast constituency won by the DUP, voters expressed dismay at the obliteration of the centre ground.

“We’ve gone back decades – we’re further apart than ever,” said John Foster, 72, a retired English lecturer.

*Reuters and Agence France-Presse

Published: June 10, 2017 04:00 AM

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