Ireland Eye

Written By: John Coulter
Published: July 6, 2017 Last modified: July 6, 2017

The Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn should take careful note of the DUP/Tory body language during the signing of the supposedly historic £1 billion deal which keeps Theresa May’s minority Conservative Government in power – for the time being!

The deal wasn’t signed by May and her DUP counterpart, Arlene Foster, but by Lagan Valley DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson – the party’s chief negotiator – and by Tory Chief Whip Gavin Williamson.

The deal pledges the May Government to give Northern Ireland an extra £1 billion in public spending in return for the 10 DUP Commons votes on a ‘Supply and Confidence’ arrangement relating to the Queen’s Speech, the Budget, Brexit and legislation relating to national security.

Surely it should have been the two party leaders – May and Foster – who should have penned this deal? After all, in 1985, when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in Northern Ireland, it was British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and the Republic’s Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald who put pen to paper.

The current deal may buy the support of 10 DUP MPs to keep the Tories temporarily in power, but that doesn’t guarantee May will be the Conservative leader.

And in Northern Ireland, as the focus shifts to the future of the power-sharing institutions at Stormont, could a situation arise whereby Foster has to temporarily step aside as either First Minister, or DUP chief to placate Sinn Fein.

It should not be forgotten that the trigger which set all these events in motion was the late Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein resigning as Stormont deputy First Minister because Foster would not temporarily step down as First Minister.

The DUP had become embroiled in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, which is estimated to cost the British taxpayer some £600 million over the next two decades. A major inquiry into the scandal is due to begin in September.

The Tories’ £1 billion ‘gift’ to the Northern Ireland coffers has naturally sparked a storm of protests in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and there must also be grumblings in some of the eco­nomically hard-pressed English regions.

With the Flying Lizards’ 1979 hit, Money, including the lyrics: ‘I want money, that’s what I want’ buzzing around the Westminster rooms and corridors, Labour needs to be ready with a cash package which can match May’s millions.

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. 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.

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 could beat May’s budget for Northern Ireland, the DUP would almost immediately shift its support.

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?

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.

Corbyn’s key to 10 Downing Street would be to abolish university tuition fees in Northern Ireland to combat the state’s so-called ‘brain drain’. There simply aren’t enough higher education places in Northern Ireland to cope with the demand, forcing many students to travel to mainland Britain for their university education.

University fees in Northern Ireland are currently running at just under £4,000 per year, compared to just over £9,000 per year in Britain. The DUP is a very pragmatic party and it will go where the money lies.

If the expected Tory civil war topples May and the Conservative rebels spark another General Election, Corbyn could be well placed – with DUP support – to enter Downing Street.

The Tories may have given the DUP a beautifully iced cake, but Corbyn may well be placed to add that cherry on the icing – and become Prime Minister.

About John Coulter

John Coulter is a journalist for the Daily Star