Sure what harm could a Tory deal with the DUP do?

Just a late night list of problems with the Tory-DUP deal before we see it sometime later in the week.

In summary it  disturbs the careful balance of the Good Friday agreement by its very existence.

There’s the risk of huge danger to the wider unionist position if the DUP overbid. They would fare much better to cleave to the unionism of Ruth Davidson with its far wider appeal and influence.

A pact between two very different forms of unionism can offer the DUP very limited support on the nagging constituional question . Self determination is limited to both parts of Ireland. The rest of the UK is excluded although it’s clearer than ever that the Conservatives under any likely leader won’t be neutral on the question. This matters straightaway on pressing for a return to Stormont and attitudes to a border poll. Does it help the DUP’s cause if May or a successor takes one side and Corbyn ditto the other?  And  Dublin coming on stronger in support of nationalism,  perhaps with Fianna Fail organising to rival Sinn Fein in the North?

How can a British minister broker a Stormont agreement if one side is propping up his government? In part, an uninformed question. What brokering role?  People asking this have failed to notice Brokenshire compromised his role just before it might have begun by joining the DUP in complaining that legacy inquiries were focusing too much on the army.   And even before the Manchester and London atrocities May was looking ahead to a post- Brexit review of the Human Rights Act and membership of the ECHR, even those these are entrenched in the GFA.  Brokenback has put little effort into mediation anyway and has largely stuck to setting elastic deadlines.

The deal increases  polarisation of unionists and nationalists and adds a big threat to stabilty. Can meaningful power sharing survive in this atmosphete and with Gerry Adams keeping nagging on about a border poll as the rival attraction?  Prospects for the return of the Assembly have surely been weakened. It will require a completely different approach to mediation to revive them.

It could even emperil the Union it’s pledged to defend.  Catholics of middle of the road and anti SF views will have a big say in its long term survival. What do they think the DUP deal says about fairness for Catholics? Is this the sort of state they are content to belong to? The alternative of a UI within the EU begins to look  more and more attractive. Maybe even worth souring relations with Prods? How much worse could they get? (A lot actually).

It could end Tory-Labour bipartisanship over the Union. Tories plus DUP equals Labour plus Irish nationalism. And Labour could be back in power within a year. So was it worth it, they’ll ask – too late.

It imposes strains on the vital British – Irish relationship. Won’t Dublin feel compelled to give more active support to northern nationalism as Adams is demanding?

Does this list exaggerate the problems? I hope so.

Later.  The  bits of the DUP manifesto on flegs and parades  etc  were cynically added to draw out the vote, believing they’d never be implemented. Reports that the DUP are pressing for concessions on austerity over welfare payments such as  the proposed removal of part of the triple lock and winter fuel payments for pensioners would be popular beyond Northern Ireland. Concentrating demands on  pan-UK matters would modestly improve the DUP’s external reputation and even perhaps its internal one..

We haven’t seen the confidence and supply arrangement,  but the transparency a deal of this kind with the Tories requires – and certainly the debate that follows-  might actually help stability  by ruling out a unionist flegs regime, and a legacy policy that specially favours the army. It could even advance LGBT rights as May hinted at to the redoubtable Ruth Davidson.

An outcome along the lines  of an  ” open Brexit” as pressed by Davidson is more in tune with the Foster- McGuinness letter to May almost a year ago, which was an eloquent statement of NI’s real interests. Even though Nigel Dodds rushed to rule out remaining in the single market, his is not the last word.

Back to the impartiality role of the British government in the GFA. Whatever the enthusiasm of the Secretary of state for the Union, he or she would be legally  obliged to call a border poll if a majority in favour had emerged. Criteria for reaching this decision remain unknown and they will surely be raised in public soon as part of a wider debate about the wisdom of relying on numbers alone .

Any financial  incentives should be linked to the return to Stormont. If negotiated entirely separately the chances of return would surely be seriously jeopardised. Any extra funding  should be accompanied by Treasury supervision to force through Health and social services reform and pressure to restrict the blocking effect of petitions of concern. This was part of the Fresh Start agreement of late 2015 but never fully implemented.  Limiting the veto power of petitions would improve the chances of introducing same sex marriage and breaking some other deadlocks.

The DUP should bear in mind that any extravagant rattling of the begging bowl would be deeply unpopular in other regions and could damage the sense on  Union solidarity that the DUP otherwise courts.

Some fears of DUP influence on British social policy are wide of the mark. DUP blocking of same sex message probably no longer commands  majority support never mind importing it across the water. The DUP are canny enough to realise that and pressure to change at home will not let up from far wider than Sinn Fein. They will surely lie low on all this as exposure would only  increase pressure on them at home.

While this stretches the point, the discovery of what the DUP appears to stand for by the wider world should present the amorphous centre ground opinion in all parties at home with  a real opportunity to recover confidence in consensual reform. Many people must be horrified at the image of Northern Ireland being presented. But yes, folks, you live in an obsessively introverted world and that’s what you look like to outsiders who have barely noticed you beyond recoiling from the late Paisley’s guldering. They might just be surprised at what still lies  behind the later image of the chuckle brothers that was repudiated when the old man was ruthlessly replaced. Perhaps more pragmatic and ambitious DUP figures will use this exposure to modernise just a bit faster than Robinson managed. On the other side the Daily Mail and friends are unlikely to let up on reminders of Sinn Fein’s antecedents, in spite of their rather  better modernised image.

Finally, and I never thought I’d have to say this, I find myself wincing at  the heavy patronising and overmonstering of the DUP in the media as a substitute for genuine inquiry. It has sometimes felt like borderline racism. Apart from the usual suspects of the Mail and the Telegraph, few of them would talk about Sinn Fein like that. Ask Jeremy Corbyn who is about to emerge as the earnest  champion of moderate Irish nationalism after an early career spent damaging it.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London