Newton Emerson: There are signs the DUP and Labour are developing closer links

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

 Gordon Brown and Peter Robinson in 2010
 Gordon Brown and Peter Robinson in 2010

Labour MP Stephen Pound, a shadow Northern Ireland minister, has told Radio Ulster he has no doubt there will be some kind of agreement between the Stormont parties in September.

That sounds a little early, and of course there is always doubt, but this is certainly what the DUP wants to hear.

The DUP will have been even more pleased with Pound last month when he was interviewed by BBC’s The View, three days after the deal with the Tories was signed. The whole UK, including many Conservatives, seemed to be up in arms - yet Pound did not have a bad word to say about the DUP or the deal, let alone the concept of a deal.

The following day, London newspapers reported the DUP had held talks with Labour and the Liberal Democrats during its negotiations with the Conservatives, in order to pressurise Theresa May into forking over more money.

The DUP apparently told the opposition parties that if they proposed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, pledging no hard border in Ireland, the DUP would support it - humiliating the government on its first day in parliament.

“They’re being rather canny,” one opposition source told The Sun. “They’re obviously doing it as leverage.”

How far can this leverage go?

Parties will trade with each other for power, regardless of their differences.

Read more: Hillary Clinton emails show Labour sought DUP eletion pactOpens in new window ]

The hysteria of the past few weeks, the divisive new mood in public debate and the tectonic changes that seem to underlie it all have still not rewritten that rule of the political universe.

In a finely balanced House of Commons, the trading will only become more frenetic. The Conservatives have no choice but to cling to office for as long as they can because they have no confidence in winning another election and no candidate to replace May. Their slender majority will be eroded by deaths, divisions and defections, making the DUP’s 10 MPs increasingly important.

The only way for the DUP to capitalise on this is to threaten to back Labour on selected votes. Naturally, Labour will want to discuss the possibilities. So the two parties will slide towards an alliance of occasionally beating up the Tories, for their own separate and various purposes. It says all you need to know about Westminster that this process began before the DUP-Tory deal was even signed, with the Lib-Dems also trying to get in on the action.

The more trust there is between the DUP and Labour, the better placed they will be to pick at the Tory carcass. Pound is an interesting if minor figure in this regard - he has been a shadow Northern Ireland minister since 2010, and is not on the left of the party, so leaving him in place represents continuity from a Corbyn team that seems otherwise set on a purge.

Owen Smith, the new shadow secretary of state, is an unmistakeable emissary of a wooing already underway. Smith was Corbyn’s only challenger for the Labour leadership last year. Sending him to Belfast might seem to be a punishment but in fact it is a signal that Corbyn’s personal views on Northern Ireland will not define his conduct and policy towards us. That signal is partly aimed at Britain, where Corbyn’s friendship with Sinn Féin is on balance considered a liability, but to the extent it is aimed at Northern Ireland it can only serve to reassure unionists.

While the sincerity of this message may be questioned, it is undeniably being sent. Smith was tasked with unionist outreach over the Twelfth and endured eye-watering abuse on social media from Labour supporters in Britain after thanking the Orange Order for its hospitality. It will be interesting to see how his mission to the mad provincials is developed and promoted. Labour monstered the DUP to its supporters after the Tory deal but could seek to undo this as it aims to deal more with the DUP itself.

Like the DUP, Labour might find it cannot play separate games on either side of the Irish Sea without anybody noticing the contradictions.

It remains implausible that the DUP would bring the Conservative government down and put Corbyn in power - although that is mathematically possible within the present parliament and legally possible without another election. In practice, if the Tories fell, there would almost certainly be an election that would return the DUP to irrelevance.

In the meantime, however, a deepening DUP-Labour relationship is not only politically possible but is happening before our eyes.