If the election result has severely weakened Theresa May, it has correspondingly strengthened another female politician – Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist Party leader, who could be seen beaming with delighted party colleagues at the election count in Northern Ireland.
After a stormy year there — in which the devolved Assembly collapsed amid allegations that Foster was to blame for a costly renewable heating scandal — the Westminster election has restored the DUP’s fortunes beyond its wildest dreams: with the ten seats it has won, the party could now take on the role of ‘kingmakers’ in a minority Conservative government. Early on Friday morning, it was quick to indicate its preparedness to lend support on a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement rather than a formal coalition.
With this election, the DUP has also eliminated the Ulster Unionist Party from Westminster, once the seemingly unassailable behemoth of Unionist politics, which failed to return a single MP. The centre ground in Northern Ireland has become a sinkhole. Sinn Fein, with seven elected MPs, has similarly wiped out the Westminster representation of the moderate nationalist SDLP. Yet despite the Sinn Fein leadership’s long-standing close association with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, it has stated it is not prepared to abandon its policy of abstention from the UK parliament.
In the coming weeks, in Foster’s words, the DUP ‘will do what is best for Northern Ireland’. Many political commentators on the mainland are asking, somewhat nervously, just what price that might entail: roads, schools, hospitals? The last time a minority Conservative government was dependent upon Unionist MPs was in 1996, when John Major’s administration was in jeopardy following a series of by-election defeats. But at that time, the largest Unionist party was David Trimble’s UUP. Major was in the thick of the ‘peace process’ and intricate arguments over IRA decommissioning, which absorbed many of the perceived concessions.
More than 20 years later, Trimble is in the Lords, and the UUP is no longer a force to be reckoned with in Westminster. In Northern Ireland and outside it, the scenario has changed radically. The DUP is in many ways a changed party from the days when Ian Paisley led it in tub-thumpingly sectarian style – although a stubborn element of its fundamentalist wing remains active.
While the DUP remains socially conservative – opposing abortion and gay marriage – Foster is also politically pragmatic, with good working relationships with ministers in the Republic of Ireland. She is, however, loathed by Sinn Fein, which has refused to return to the Stormont Assembly while Foster is First Minister, leaving Northern Ireland politics in a state of stagnation. The current turn of events — whereby the DUP has been thrust into a position of national influence — will infuriate Sinn Fein still further: it is hard to see where the devolved administration can go from here.
What might the DUP ask of the Tories in exchange for their support? Two decades ago, the negotiating ground between Unionists and government was the minutiae of the peace process. Today it is Brexit. Although the DUP backed Brexit, it is against a ‘hard border’ with the Republic of Ireland that would potentially damage trade and ignite fierce demands for ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland, or even Irish unity. As Foster has said: ‘We need to do it in a way that respects the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, and, of course, our shared history and geography with the Republic of Ireland.’
There may be other concessions — the DUP is also opposed to means testing winter fuel payments, for example, or abandoning the ‘triple lock’ on state pensions. In the current topsy-turvy nature of British politics, it seems telling that the DUP — long seen, under Paisley, as irredeemable political hardliners — might just be responsible for dragging the Conservatives back towards softer ground.