Stand By Labour

With the Stormont talks in stalemate, all eyes return to Westminster and the DUP/Tory axis. Political Commentator, Dr John Coulter, looks at how the British Labour Party should be on standby should a looming Conservative civil war over Brexit put the DUP/Tory deal in crisis. A shorter version of this article appeared in Dr Coulter's Ireland Eye column in Tribune magazine.

Who will sup soup with the devil first, according to the auld fundamentalist maxim? Don’t assume the supposedly Right-wing Democratic Unionist Party will climb into bed politically with Tories to prop up Theresa May’s minority Government.

The DUP is determined to use its 10 MPs to squeeze as big a cash boost for Northern Ireland as possible as well as a front row seat in the UK’s Brexit negotiations.

Don’t assume, too, this confines Jeremy Corbyn to five years as Leader of the Opposition. Corbyn, on paper, may not seem like the darling of the DUP because of his past association with Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political apologist.

But in spite of its supposed Bible-thumping credentials with stern opposition to homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion and assisted suicide, the DUP is a pragmatic beast and it will adapt any political situation to suit the party.

In 1985, DUP founder Ian Paisley senior launched his local government campaign under the banner ‘Smash Sinn Fein’. In 2006, Paisley senior signed up to the St Andrews Agreement which saw him enter a Stormont power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein.

In 1986, the DUP gave political support to the loyalist terror group, Ulster Resistance, even when the paramilitary received a huge weapons cache from South Africa. In 2017, DUP representatives condemned the flying of loyalist paramilitary flags.

In the 1980s, DUP politicians belonging to the Paisley-founded fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster slammed other liberal Protestant denominations, such as the Church of Ireland. Now the DUP is led by Arlene Foster, a former UUP elected representative and practising Anglican.

What Corbyn and the Labour leadership need to keep uppermost is that the DUP is a political leopard capable of changing its spots to make the most of any situation.

The DUP has been in secret talks with Labour in the past so the prospect of a future Corbyn/Foster alliance involving Westminster should not be dismissed as speculative mischief-making.

Given the splits, clashes and rifts within May’s Tory party, a minority Conservative Government could struggle through the summer with yet another General Election come the autumn.

In spite of Corbyn’s Irish republican political credentials, he faces a virtually impossible task trying to persuade Sinn Fein to abandon its historic policy of abstentionism at Westminster and allow Sinn Fein MPs to take their Commons seats.

If diehard Tory ‘Remainers’ spark a civil war which topples May, Labour – and the DUP – must be ready to form a ‘rainbow’ coalition Government along with Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the Lib Dems, Green Party, and Independent Unionist MP Sylvia Hermon.

Currently, the DUP is demanding a ridiculously high price of billions in aid for Northern Ireland to prop up May. Tactically, it could be a case of aim too high to come down lower in hardball negotiations.

Or, plain and simple, the DUP demand could be just too high and the party has priced itself right out of the market of a deal with the Conservatives.

The full details of the supposed Tory/DUP deal are not in the open yet. And even when they are published, Corbyn must be ready with a counter deal to combat the Tories.

Social media may have created a false frenzy that today’s DUP is some kind of Christian fundamentalist version of the Taliban or Islamic State. Nothing could be further from the truth.

On bread and butter issues, the DUP has more in common with Labour than the Tories. Likewise, there is a natural suspicion of Tory administrations by the DUP. It was Tory PM Ted Heath in 1972 who axed the original Unionist-majority rule Stormont Parliament; it was Tory PM Maggie Thatcher in 1985 who signed the hated Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave the Republic a say in the running of Northern Ireland; it was Tory PM John Major in 1993 who signed the Downing Street Declaration which effectively kick-started Sinn Fein’s electoral roller coaster.

The DUP, like Corbyn’s Labour, has strong working class roots. Massive cash injections for health, education, job creation and infrastructure will be the price of support from the DUP. If Corbyn can beat May’s budget for Northern Ireland, the DUP will almost immediately shift its support to the ‘rainbow’ coalition.

In dealing with the DUP, Corbyn must answer a key tactical question – which is easier to negotiate in terms of an anti-Tory alliance: a coalition involving 10 DUP MPs, or a coalition involving seven Sinn Fein MPs?

Or could Corbyn aim for the ultimate prize – creating a coalition which unites both DUP and Sinn Fein MPs behind the Labour Government banner? If the DUP and Sinn Fein could work together in the power-sharing Stormont Executive, both parties can work together to guarantee that Corbyn is handed the keys to 10 Downing Street.

All Corbyn has to do is offer a cash deal which has the aim – it’ll undo the years of austerity cuts which previous Tory administrations inflicted on Northern Ireland. As with Stormont when it receives cash boosts from London, all of a sudden Sinn Fein and the DUP can become ‘buddy, buddy’!

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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