A loss of seats for the Conservative Party in the UK’s general election has forced them to make a deal with a small Northern Irish party, little-known in the rest of the UK: the Democratic Unionist Party (the DUP). From a radical opposition to abortion to creationism, the DUP’s religious grounding and political project calls to mind Polish political developments. Kerrie Milford investigates the intriguing parallels.
After a two-week negotiating period following the UK general election, which resulted in a hung parliament, the Conservative Party deal with the DUP has been agreed. In return for £1 billion of new funding, the 10 Northern Irish MPs will provide the Tory government with a majority in key parliamentary votes. Historical connections mean that the Scottish are more familiar with the Ulster [Northern Irish] brand of unionism but these two weeks have seen great numbers of people in England and Wales first become aware of the party from the insignificant little part of the UK, mostly famous for bombs. It is ironic how a group whose reason for existence is preserving British sovereignty, is so little-known on the mainland. These provincial players will now be taking part on the main stage and undergo a level of objective scrutiny like never before. The ethno-religious landscape of Northern Irish politics has meant that economic, healthcare, and defence policies have always played second fiddle to identity issues which appear extremely petty when viewed from outside.
Living in Poland has afforded me a more detached viewing of politics in my home-country and the challenge of explaining why the deal is so controversial. I have been asked here if it is difficult to live in a right-wing, highly religious country, coming from the ‘progressive, secular’ west of Europe. Difficult, of course, but actually, nothing new. Northern Ireland and Poland alike experience a ‘brain-drain’ to England, due to comparatively low wages, lack of opportunities and governments with a retrograde vision. While the Polish government debate a proposed Sunday trading ban, swings were previously chained up in playgrounds on Sundays in Northern Ireland. As producers of a controversial play, deemed as ‘blasphemous’, are being investigated by Polish state prosecutors, a council row in Northern Ireland resulted in a comedic play about the Bible being shut down in 2014. The ‘Black Protest’ last year in Poland succeeded in preventing further restrictions to abortion access for the time-being. Thankfully a U-turn by the Westminster government will now allow women travelling to England for abortions from Northern Ireland, where it is illegal, to access the service on the NHS, which they also pay taxes for. Previously, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had claimed that the denial of rights was in respect of the devolution of democracy to Northern Ireland. The DUP’s stance on the issue is well known, having previously blocked attempts to reform the law and using delaying tactics to prevent decisions being made on the issue before last year’s Assembly election.
Formed in 1971, against the backdrop of The Troubles, it was originally a party of protest against any involvement of the Republic of Ireland in Northern Irish matters or indeed, any form of conflict resolution that required dialogue with Irish nationalists. Although the institution of power-sharing has now been realised after decades of strife, it remains very fragile and cannot be said to adequately serve the Northern Irish public. The reactionary remit of the DUP to defend Ulster against perceived Irish interference and maintain its ‘Britishness’ have contributed to several collapses of the Assembly, including the current one. Currently a proposed Irish Language Act stands as a major obstacle to restoring a functioning devolved government. The deadline for talks has been frustratingly missed, partly due to the Conservative deal distracting focus on the issue and also emboldening the DUP to refuse compromising with nationalist Sinn Fein. Until now, the British government has not always reciprocated their ardour and in contradiction to the actual Conservative party, which has modernised slightly in the past few years, the DUP’s social conservatism has been likened to British culture of the 1950s. Drawing comparisons with the polish Law and Justice party (PiS), whose brand of religious nationalism paints President of the European Council Donald Tusk as the lead bogeyman of the ‘post-communist elites’, Poland can apparently only thrive if traditional values and racial homogeny are upheld. Even before the prospect of a Tory deal, power-sharing in Belfast appeared doomed. Secretary of State James Brokenshire’s apparent bias towards the DUP by criticising investigations into British Army wrongdoing during the Troubles meant that he was not regarded as a neutral conciliator by other parties. Their now elevated position in British politics may mean that possible direct rule is not such bad news for the DUP but would be a disastrous development for a country still healing from decades of civil war. In fact, NI Green Party politician Ciaran McClean has launched a legal challenge to the deal, on the grounds that it breaches the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, whereby the British government must remain impartial. The doubt as to whether the interests of both communities in Northern Ireland can be addressed by anti-Catholics, in cohorts with a party whose name is officially the Conservative and Unionist Party is highly reasonable. Their ability to move beyond inward-looking squabbles and the brinkmanship method of governing remains to be seen, especially since one of their first conditions was to rule out the possibility of a referendum on Irish unity.
The DUP has been the largest party in the Northern Irish Assembly since 2003, with a large proportion of members being self-professed evangelical Christians. If PiS can be described as radical Catholic populists, the DUP mirror them on the Protestant side. While not all DUP members are associated with the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church, established by former leader Ian Paisley, or the sectarian Orange Order institution, puritanical religion remains a defining factor in the party’s policies. They have consistently abused the Assembly’s ‘petition of concern’ mechanism to block social progress such as equal marriage, including in 2015, when the issue received a majority support vote in the Assembly for the first time. However, it is hardly surprising from a party whose members have publicly stated that LGBT people are disgusting, on a par with paedophiles and spearheaded a campaign named ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ opposing the 1982 legalisation of homosexuality. Although the historic anti-Catholic bigotry may rankle, the DUP and PiS could bond over vocal opposition to gay rights instead-homosexuals are ‘socially useless’, as Sejm member Krystyna Pawłowicz put it in 2013. The traditional nuclear family model is aggressively promoted in Poland, through child benefit programs like ‘500+’ and there is no legal recognition of homophobic hate crime, creating a climate where hatred is commonplace. Again, PiS is clearly not composed entirely of religious zealots but have benefitted from marrying politics with religion, using the Catholic Church as a patriotic force and forging close ties with the influential Radio Maryja. This station, with listeners mainly comprising of elderly people in poorer rural areas, preaches counter-modernity, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Although the Vatican have actually expressed concern about the station, PiS are more than happy to exploit the piety of its listeners for their own political gains.
It is hard to measure the influence solely of fundamentalism but the DUP’s grip on basic science is also questionable. Member Trevor Clarke admitted that he hadn’t known until recently that heterosexual people could be infected with HIV, former environmental Minister Sammy Wilson is an outspoken climate change denier and staunch creationists are among senior figures in the party, advocating it being taught in school science classes. When Green Party MP Caroline Lucas suggested that the influence of DUP ‘dinosaurs’ had led to the conspicuous lack of environmental bills in the Conservatives’ legislation program, the DUP Wikipedia page was locked shortly after to prevent edits stating that they didn’t believe in dinosaurs. Again, friends could be found among the ranks of PiS, fiercely defensive of Poland’s reliance on coal and dismissive of EU climate policies as attacks on national pride. The government has also just begun a highly controversial logging program in the UNESCO protected BiaŁowieza forest, some of Europe’s last primeval woodland. In fact, the DUP’s recent foray into green matters descended into farce and directly resulted in the fresh collapse of the power-sharing NI government at the beginning of 2017. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein resigned over DUP leader Arlene Foster’s refusal to step aside to allow an investigation into a bungled renewable heating scheme. The scandal was nicknamed ‘cash for ash’ due to the lack of subsidy caps-the more heat generated, the more money could be earned, even for unused buildings. Potentially costing NI taxpayers £400 million, it later emerged that relations of DUP members had availed of the scheme and that Foster had previously shut down whistle-blowers who had warned about flaws years before. From benefitting from illegal property sales to protecting a financially dubious social housing maintenance company, the DUP have been no stranger to scandal while in government. Most recently, the lack of transparency regarding political donors, which the NI Green Party have long campaigned against, was highlighted during the EU referendum campaign. Advertising promoting the Leave cause was funded by the DUP but strangely only run in mainland Britain, where the party do not stand. After suggestions that the donated money could be linked to Saudi Arabia and criminal gangs and having refused to reveal their exact sources, the DUP have not managed to quell rumours of laundering and shady dealings.
An unexpected rise to fame
With the emotional fallout after Brexit still extremely fresh, the UK general election was an almost hysterical affair. The daily character assassinations of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn verged on the comical but one particular tactic that has backfired on the Conservatives was in falsely portraying him as a terrorist sympathiser with strong links to the IRA. Being propped up by the DUP now smacks of hypocrisy, who despite sanctimoniously using the Sinn Fein/IRA link to block meaningful dialogue in the Assembly, have a far from clean track record on associations with terrorism and paramilitaries. The defunct group ‘Ulster Resistance’ was established by party members in the 1980s, objecting to the peace-seeking Anglo-Irish Agreement and facilitating illegal arms shipments into Northern Ireland. The party have always enjoyed strong support from areas with a large paramilitary presence and before the last election, received a public endorsement from such groups. Orange Order parades are a highly antagonistic issue, with the annual 12th July celebration often erupting into violence when marching through Catholic areas or after disputed re-routes. Although the Order and the DUP are intrinsically linked, members seem to fail to acknowledge the effect of their inflammatory sectarian speeches and the trouble that follows, distancing themselves in the media from blame. The fear is now that that the party will use their new political clout to reinstate banned marches and inflame religious tensions in Northern Ireland once again.
The saving grace of this contentious deal is, of course, the long overdue investment in Northern Irish infrastructure and health service. Like PiS, economically the DUP do not fit easily on the traditional left-right spectrum. They are anti-austerity, with an enthusiastic working-class following, helped to mitigate the effect of the hated ‘bedroom tax’ in Northern Ireland, and prevented the imposition of water charges. Other conditions of cooperation included the continuation of winter fuel payments and guaranteeing the ‘triple lock’ increase of state pensions. However, an obsession of the DUP to drastically cut corporation tax is now also set to come into force. The party’s economic strategy has always come second to unionist ideology and while useful contacts may have been well-served, there still exists shockingly high levels of poverty and economic neglect in Northern Ireland. Their hard-line Brexit stance is similarly confused. They were the only major NI party supporting withdrawal from the EU, on the bases of defence, immigration and animosity towards the European Supreme Court. Arlene Foster must now push the very specific circumstances there, in relation to the border with EU member Ireland and the need to maintain freedom of movement for the sake of the economy.
If DUP influence can at least soften Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, it may be a small consolation for Remain voters, indeed 56% of Northern Irish voters. The party has been Eurosceptic since its foundation, actually regarding EU formation as a harbinger of the apocalypse and voting statistics for the referendum mirrored areas of strong DUP support. Their urban heartland of East Belfast voted 51.4% in favour to leave while West Belfast, dominated by Sinn Fein, only 25.9%. In their manifesto, the DUP refers to itself a ‘friend of the farmer’ and rural constituencies like South Antrim and Upper Bann, where they are the biggest party, also voted to leave by narrow margins. However, this same demographic have greatly benefitted from EU subsidies; indeed the export-led agri-food industry is the backbone of local economy. This friendship was demonstrated in the prominence of the issue in the deal with the Conservatives but it will be a huge challenge to ensure that the British government provides a worthy substitute to the Common Agricultural Policy and bridges funding gaps long term.
The UK’s divorce from Europe was naturally a cause for Polish concern, first and foremost about the rights of their citizens resident there. As well as that, PiS will lose a key EU ally, having sat on the same anti-federalist bloc in the European Parliament. In marked contrast to the integrationalist strategy of the previous Polish government, PiS’s election pledge was to reduce European ‘control’ over national affairs and pursue its own agenda. Head of the party Jarosław Kaczyński has since described Brexit as an opportunity for reform though the direction that Poland has taken by compromising the independence of the judiciary and media drew an EU inquiry into the rule of law with relations remaining very tense. Legal action has also been started over their refusal to accept any refugees, citing security fears. Poland have shown no definitive signs of wanting to withdraw from the union, instead pushing for more recognition of the Central European states. Unlike the DUP, who seem to have forgotten how much the EU contributed financially to the peace process in Northern Ireland, PiS at least recognise that Poland’s prosperous transformation would have been impossible alone.