The announcement that Theresa May has courted the Democratic Unionist Party in order to prop up her ailing premiership and keep the Tories in power has sent shockwaves through mainland Britain. If you follow social media, you might be forgiven for thinking that the UK’s version of the Taliban were about to be given an open door to Downing Street and the Prime Minister.
Certainly liberal readers of a certain vintage might shudder when recalling how the party, created by the late Reverend Dr Ian Paisley – the “Doc” – in 1971 ran an unsuccessful “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign to prevent the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland (some wags responded that it was sodomy that needed to be saved from Ulster). Or they might be aware of the notorious chaining up the swings in the playground to preserve the Sabbath.
Between 2012 and 2014 I, and colleagues from the Universities of Liverpool, Huddersfield and Ulster, were granted unique access to the DUP and conducted the first ever detailed analysis of the party and the views of its members. In contrast to their perceived image of the dour hardline Ulster Protestant, we found a party populated by a confident and, dare I say it, entertaining, group of committed and hardworking politicians.
I recall vividly attending a sit down meal that Jim Shannon, the DUP MP for Strangford, had laid on for his local party. Food and drink was served on paper plates and cups adorned with the Union Jack – no alcohol only (appropriately) orange squash. Everyone had a great time and the locally made food, particularly the cheesecake, was the match of anything I’ve ever had in a London restaurant. When we went to interview the Reverend William McCrea, then a gospel singing DUP MP with around 30 albums to his name, it seemed appropriate to get in the zone for the meeting by playing one of them in the car journey there; Reverend McCrea very kindly signed a copy of the CD for us.
McCrea was a minister in the small fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church, founded by Ian Paisley in 1951 and, while only having 15,000 members, still remains the largest Protestant denomination among both DUP members and elected representatives: some 30.5 per cent of DUP members were Free Presbyterians at this point, although this has been declining. The DUP remains a bastion of social conservatism reflected in opposition to extending Britain’s abortion laws to Northern Ireland (where it remains effectively illegal except in exceptional circumstances) or legalising same sex marriage – the DUP MP David Simpson once told the Commons that “In the garden of Eden it was Adam and Eve, it wasn't Adam and Steve.”
While the DUP remains a definitely Protestant political party, it is worth mentioning that both the main Nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, are de facto Catholic parties – with the supposedly progressive latter staunch in its opposition to extending British abortion laws to Northern Ireland.
Despite this social conservatism, the DUP is no longer the party that Paisley created. The Good Friday Agreement changed everything. More than one quarter of the DUP’s current membership joined between 1998 and 2005, many from the traditionally more moderate Ulster Unionist Party, including its present leader Arlene Foster. It made the party more open to sharing power with Nationalists, something the DUP had opposed since the 1970s. The political rise of Foster has also been an inspiration for younger female members of a party that has traditionally seen men dominating its key positions.
It is also worth noting that the pragmatism of the DUP was evident in the run up to the 2010 and 2015 General Elections – the DUP did not rule out supporting a minority Labour Government in a hung Parliament. But 2017 is different. Currently Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are political pariahs, seen by the DUP as being past supporters of the IRA, who tried to bomb and shoot Protestants – including the current leader of the party and her father – into a united Ireland. So this leaves the Conservatives as the only British party they can do business with – for now.
Thomas Hennessey is Professor of British and Irish History at Canterbury Christ Church University and was a member of the UUP's Talks Team during the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement. He is the co-author of “The Democratic Unionist Party from Protest to Power”
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