Let's hope this deal pays off for us all - while it lasts
WELL, what a turn of events. After years of speculation that our local parties may have a say on the formation and maintenance of a UK government, and successive elections where that has not come to pass, a series of events has created that exact situation.
Theresa May’s calamitous performance in a campaign for an election she should never have called, the DUP surge which led them to claim 10 seats, Sinn Fein clinging to an abstentionist policy which makes no tactical sense, has all led to the situation where the Conservative Party is wholly reliant on the DUP for as long as it wants to remain in government and in Downing Street.
The pace of events since last Thursday left the political observers among us scratching our heads and in some cases struggling to keep up. It remains unclear, almost a week after the election, just what the impact might be on the possibility of our own institutions being restored.
Will the DUP maintain a focus on the Assembly, now they have a UK wide role? Are Sinn Fein more or less likely to enter serious negotiations with the DUP which is formally aligned to the UK Government via the Tories?
Remember the Sinn Fein election slogan - send the Tories a message! Stand up to the Tories and the DUP! Well now they can stand up to both at the same time, a sort of a political ‘two for one’ deal.
With one half of our dominant parties directly engaged in a partnership with the authors of the austerity programme, and the other vehemently opposed to austerity and avowed to end its implementation, well the signs aren’t good.
‘Who is the DUP?’ is a question which is gaining currency with every remarkable minute of this remarkable week of politics. That question comes from media, interest groups and opposition parties. The ridicule which sometimes accompanies such commentary is unfair and inaccurate. The fact is the DUP is much more than an anti-gay, religiously driven pressure group.
Up until January this year the DUP was centrally involved as the major player in the Northern Ireland government since 2007. Yes for the most part it was a stuttering, under-performing government which in the end was too mired in allegations and scandal to survive but the arrogance and sneering with which the metropolitan commentators have addressed the party since Friday last week is inappropriate.
And if the DUP aren't fit to be part of a government coalition agreement in London as things stand, why has that only emerged as an issue now? Does what happen here really not register at all on the UK agenda? I think we all know the answer to that one.
So at the time of writing details of any deal between the DUP and the Conservative Government were very light, in fact non existent.
That vacuum gives way to speculation and in my case, a sliver of pragmatic optimism. The DUP is a political party with a constituency and an agenda, of course it has. However can we maybe hope that even Theresa May in all her incompetence will know that granting concessions which are purely one sided and potentially divisive is politically bankrupt and damaging?
And if she doesn’t let’s hope there are enough sound heads and strong voices around her to ensure that there is some common sense in the matter of appeasing the DUP purely on their own terms.
At the same time, there is an opportunity here which is unprecedented.
We have very real needs here in Northern Ireland around health spending, transport infrastructure, a lower corporation tax, a gap coming down the track where EU subsidies currently flow. Hopefully these are on the agenda of the DUP when it comes to upholding a ‘Confidence and Supply’ agreement, and if so, they can benefit us all.
In fact, if carefully handled and seen to be productive to the region as a whole, the arrangement and its outworking could help provide a context where devolution is more likely, not less. A devolution agreement in the context of a less difficult financial situation is both likely and more workable.
The DUP have been very clear that they will never back a Jeremy Corbyn government. The Tories know that, they will have banked that and will take that into any and all negotiations with the DUP.
At the same time though under Theresa May - the biggest electoral liability on record - they will want to avoid a fresh election. The DUP must play their hand very carefully here and in the last few years they have shown themselves to be good negotiators. Now they have a chance to construct a deal which benefits us all. At the centre of the Tories crisis lies Northern Ireland’s opportunity.
The marriage is fraught with difficulty and will come under significant pressure from both within the Tory party and outwith. It would be a brave punter who would march into Sean Graham's and place a bet on this government lasting a full term. But while it lasts, let's hope it pays off for all of us. In the meantime, buckle up. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.
:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner of MW Advocate. Twitter: @brendanbelfast