Northern Ireland’s hardline protestant, ultra-conservative Democratic Unionists were delighted when it became clear that their political party was set to win 10 seats in the general election, their best-ever haul, and a tally that would make them the largest Irish party in Westminster.
But when it started to emerge that Theresa May’s Conservative party would finish election night just a handful of seats short of winning more than 50 percent of the seats in the Commons, and they would be called on to play kingmaker, the DUP’s mood quickly turned to elation.
“This is perfect territory for the DUP obviously, because if the Conservatives are just short of an overall majority, it puts us in a very, very strong negotiating position and it is one we would take up with relish,” DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson told BBC television.
Shrewdly, perhaps, given the fate of many junior coalition partners over history, the DUP won’t be going into a full-blown coalition with the Conservatives, but instead will enter into what is known as a “confidence and supply” arrangement in which it agrees to support the ruling party on major votes—but can still pull the plug at any time.
Founded by the late incendiary Presbyterian preacher Ian Paisley—dubbed “Dr. No” by his political opponents—and now led by a woman, Arlene Foster, the DUP and the Conservatives were once natural bedfellows, united by hardline right-wing ideology and anti-Catholicism.
The full name of the Conservative Party is actually, lest we forget, the Conservative and Unionist Party.
But the British Conservatives mellowed under David Cameron, and became more socially attuned (Cameron, for example, legislated for gay marriage). But the DUP has not walked the same path of tolerance.
Since it was established by Paisley in 1971, the DUP has maintained a reputation as a hotbed of Protestant fundamentalism. Paisley and the DUP were behind the Save Ulster From Sodomy campaign, founded in 1977, which sought for years to prevent the decriminalization of homosexuality in Northern Ireland.
The DUP’s continuing opposition to gay rights is a major part of the reason that gay marriage is still not available in Northern Ireland.
At the 2013 DUP conference. the Irish Independent newspaper surveyed 50 party members, of whom 40 percent said they believed in creationism, 34 percent regarded abortion as murder, and 66 said gay men should not be allowed to donate blood.
Many in the DUP want creationism taught in schools alongside evolution.
Just last year, the DUP member of the devolved Northern Irish government for West Tyrone, Thomas Buchanan, praised the organizers of a conference presenting “the biblical case for the sound teaching of children” that promised to “offer helpful practical advice on how to counter evolutionary teaching.”
“I’m someone who believes in creationism and that the world was spoken into existence in six days by His power,” Buchanan said. “I commend those behind this event for bringing forward a program of reaching out to children who have been corrupted by the teaching of evolution. I long to see the day when every school in Northern Ireland will stand up and teach creationism, and turn away from the peddled lie that is evolution.”
The Conservatives, as a party, may be able to turn a blind eye to that history of bigotry, especially as the DUP are known to be consummate pragmatists. But the DUP’s take on Brexit may be genuinely problematic.
As Arlene Foster told one news program Friday, “No one wants to see a hard Brexit.”
A major goal for Foster will be ensuring a Brexit deal doesn’t mean a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
But one thing is certain: The DUP will be no pushover. They have let it be known they do not want to be seen as “little Northern Irelanders” and they are old hands at the ins and outs of power-sharing; Paisley stunned the world when he agreed to share power at the Northern Ireland executive with his ancient rival, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.
Whatever the Conservatives do, their fate now depends on the DUP.
And that could leave them very exposed.
As the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown told Sky News on Friday: “There is a saying, ‘You never put the country in the hands of an Ulster man.’ And that’s an Ulster man saying that.”