What the DUP have negotiated is much smarter than many predicted

Having been on the ropes in March, Arlene Foster is now in the ascendant
Having been on the ropes in March, Arlene Foster is now in the ascendant

By Ciaran McGonagle

The dramatised, contemporary version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale currently being shown on Channel 4 offers British viewers a dark, dystopian vision into life within a Christian fundamentalist state, where women retain little autonomy over their bodies and where homosexuality is punishable by death.

With publication of the 'Confidence and Supply' deal between the Conservatives and Democratic Unionist Party, fears that any agreement hinged upon the Government's acquiescence to a series of social reforms demanded by the Unionist party, transforming the United Kingdom into our own Republic of Gilead, appear to have been unfounded.

Instead, the deal, as predicted in my article for this site after the general election result, essentially amounts to a bill of up to £1.5 billion for the British taxpayer.


While, in substance, the deal was fairly predictable there are a number of notable points which hint at both the deal-making ability of the DUP and the desperation of Theresa May's party to secure a workable parliamentary majority.

Maintaining the triple lock and abandoning the proposed changes to the Winter Fuel Payment are unlikely to have been contentious. These measures presumably served the dual purpose of presenting the DUP with an objective win while providing the Conservatives with political cover to abandon measures which may have contributed to their poor election performance.

The total financial commitment is clearly significant. Assuming all financial promises are fulfilled, the £1.5 billion total represents a not insignificant uplift on the annual block grant of circa £10 billion which is distributed to Northern Ireland each year. It remains to be seen where the government will find an amount totalling almost 3 times more than the chancellor attempted to raise via his botched attempt to raise National Insurance contributions for self-employed workers a few short months ago.

Looking beyond the headline figures and policy reversals, one cannot help but be impressed by the way in which each of the various commitments, conditions, triggers and coded threats are interwoven and distilled within such a brief document.

From the DUP's perspective, it is an incredibly shrewd piece of deal making.

One of the problems with the DUP's starting position was that, once the impact of Brexit and future budget cuts was factored in, there initially seemed precious little that they could realistically offer to their base. Nationalist areas are the largest recipients of EU funding. Welfare dependency is also higher in these areas. Any corporation tax reduction, while clearly beneficial to businesses across the north, would perhaps benefit border areas more - areas that uniformly returned Sinn Féin MPs at the general election. Even a modest increase in the block grant might not "feel" like a substantial economic gain. The impact of any economic package addressing these more obvious areas could therefore have largely proven fiscally neutral for the DUP's core areas of support.

What the DUP have achieved is much cleverer.

While there is little detail beyond the general areas in which the money will be distributed, it is notable that several of the projects explicitly mentioned (such as the York Street Interchange Project) are located in DUP-held constituencies.

Other commitments which might conceivably benefit nationalist areas are much more vague. £100m over five years to target "pockets of severe deprivation," wider distribution of public servant and government jobs across the UK, more health funding and a promise to establish a limited number of Enterprise Zones all seem targeted at nationalist voters.

And, in politics, where there are carrots, you will invariably find sticks. Interestingly, the proposed economic package appears to be contingent on the restoration of power-sharing at Stormont.

On EU funding, the reference to the "UK Shared Prosperity Fund" is interesting.  As mentioned above, nationalist areas are currently in receipt of a considerable amount of the some £500m that Northern Ireland receives each year under existing EU programmes such as the Common Agricultural Policy, Regional Development Funding and the PEACE Programme. The UK Shared Prosperity Fund, as set out in the Conservative manifesto, is intended to act as the vehicle for distributing such structural fund money that comes back to the UK following Brexit. While the Tories have committed to consulting with devolved administrations, without an operative NI Assembly, what influence will the DUP have in determining where this money goes?

Intriguingly, the deal goes somewhat beyond what might be considered the normal scope of such arrangements. In addition to agreeing to support the government on all motions of confidence, the Queen's speech, the Budget and other associated money bills, the DUP have also pledged to support the government on all legislation pertaining to the UK's exit from the EU. What this means in practice is that, without the Assembly, Sinn Féin and, by extension, the nationalist community, will play no role in the legislative process that will create and implement the United Kingdom's post-Brexit legal and regulatory framework.

The inclusion of a section dealing with legacy issues is instructive, if not overtly cynical. That the Conservatives could, on one hand, explicitly refute any suggestion that their entry into this deal could in any way be perceived as a breach of their obligation under the Good Friday Agreement to act with "rigorous impartiality" in their dealings with both communities, while, on the other, claim that legacy bodies have historically focussed "unfairly" upon members of the armed forces is difficult to reconcile. Although this is no more than a cut and paste from the Conservative party's own manifesto, from a nationalist perspective and in the context of this arrangement, it is difficult to conceive of a more deliberately provocative assertion.

It would now appear that the continued objection by Sinn Féin to the appointment of Arlene Foster as first minister could result, not only in the loss of a considerable financial windfall for the North but perhaps also in a powerful and emboldened Unionist influence upon Westminster with a free hand across Brexit and other issues affecting Northern Ireland.

Indeed, the threat to Sinn Féin could scarcely be clearer: drop each of your preconditions to an agreement on power sharing (such as the passage of an Irish language act) or else.

This, in itself, represents a quite staggering shift in the balance of power in Northern Ireland. Barely a few months ago, Arlene Foster was reeling following the RHI scandal and her party's poor showing in March's Assembly elections. Calls for Foster to stand down as first minister were rejected with Paisley-esque obstinacy as the DUP sought to leverage their influence upon a government holding only a threadbare majority.

In an article for City AM in April, I wrote that the calling of the general election, with polls suggesting a 100+ seat majority for Theresa May's party, left the DUP's obstructionist strategy "in tatters."  I could hardly have been more wrong.

Now Sinn Féin are on the back foot.  Having bet the house on rallying and exploiting anti-Westminster sentiment as a means of furthering their own Irish reunification agenda, it appears that they have run into a cold deck. Of course they could decide the best course of action is to double down, to continue to rail against joint Tory/DUP rule and to promote their somewhat speculative demand for special status in Northern Ireland to a largely receptive EU negotiating team. However, with the stakes now heightened it may ultimately prove prohibitively expensive for them to do so.

Ciarán McGonagle is a London-based lawyer. Originally from Derry, Northern Ireland he writes on legal and political topics at www.ciaranmcgonagle.com

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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