Why a Labour deal might be a better bet for the DUP after the election

DUP leader Peter Robinson may be facing a quandary on May 8. Peter Morrison/PA

At the launch of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) manifesto, party leader and first minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson spoke of a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for the province’s voice to be heard at Westminster.

While many commentators have acknowledged the potential importance of a likely eight Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs in the next parliament (or possibly nine or ten), most have assumed that their votes will halp David Cameron and the Conservative Party to govern. This is not surprising – but only on the face of it.

The DUP is strong on traditional Tory issues such as defence and law and order, and would welcome a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The party’s social conservatism still strikes a chord in at least some Conservative circles, even if any post-election negotiations may still have been complicated by the resignation of health minister Jim Wells following his remarks about children being raised by gay parents.

On the other hand, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) has consistently lined up with Labour at Westminster. Having these constitutionalist Irish nationalists in the Labour camp makes it politically harder for the DUP to follow suit. Nevertheless the party’s best option is arguably to offer its support not to the Conservatives, but to Labour – perhaps on a vote-by-vote basis.

Labour dalliances past

First, some history. Unionists in Northern Ireland should remember that Labour in government has been kinder to them than the Conservatives. It was the Attlee government that established a harmonious working relationship with the unionists at Stormont to ensure that all the benefits of the welfare state and the NHS were shared by Northern Ireland – then the only part of the UK to possess separate devolved institutions.

In 1949 the Labour government passed the Ireland Act which, in response to the declaration of a republic on the part of the south in the same year, cemented the position of Northern Ireland within the UK. The then lord president of the privy council and Labour heir apparent Herbert Morrison enjoyed a particularly cordial relationship with the Ulster Unionists, who were more than willing to cash in the credit built up on account of Northern Ireland’s contribution to the allied cause in the war.

Mandelson: unionist ally. Paul Faith/PA

Interestingly, Morrison’s grandson, Peter Mandelson, was to play a similarly reassuring role in relation to unionists at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, Mandelson and the recently deceased Lord Mason would top any unionist list of favourite secretaries of state to have held sway over their affairs since 1972.

It is certainly true that Harold Wilson held a low opinion of Ulster Unionists of any stripe owing to their voting behaviour when he held a slim majority in the House from 1964-66. Yet he subsequently tried to help Ulster premier Terence O’Neill defuse the civil rights agitation of the late 1960s. Had O’Neill included changes to local government boundaries in his package of reforms in November 1968, as urged by Wilson, Northern Ireland might have been spared the tragedy that descended on it, culminating in the return to direct Westminster rule in 1972.

As for Wilson’s successor James Callaghan, he did not baulk at conceding an increase in Northern Ireland MPs at Westminster in 1978. This was a key Ulster Unionist demand in order to receive some limited unionist support amid the precarious circumstances his government then had to endure. The Labour foreign secretary of the time, David Owen, has written that support from the Ulster Unionists was “at least as important in the survival of the Labour government” as that of the Liberals. By contrast, the two biggest blows to the unionist psyche – the suspension of Stormont in 1972 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 – were delivered by Conservative governments.

Political similarities

At the same time, social class does matter politically in Northern Ireland, contrary to what many outsiders are led to believe. The DUP draws much of its support from less well-off protestants and is careful not to distance itself from the unemployed, the low paid and those on benefits.

Opposition to the bedroom tax and a variety of left-of-centre measures are in the party’s manifesto for this election. The DUP could invite considerable political trouble if it backed a Conservative government hell-bent on yet more austerity, especially as it seeks to protect welfare spending in Northern Ireland as much as possible and to secure help to re-vitalise the province’s economy. Meanwhile, the deputy leader Nigel Dodds wrote in the New Statesman in February of his party’s possible willingness to work with Labour – and has also made some trenchant criticisms of free-market fundamentalism.

The only British unionists in town?

Finally there is the overarching matter of the union itself. The DUP has always embodied a strong streak of Ulster independence (with a small “i”) in its make-up, and has traditionally been far less enthralled by London and Westminster than its Ulster Unionist rival. The DUP can live with a looser UK, yet there is an urgent need from a unionist point of view to take steps to hold the UK together. In this respect the DUP may take the view that it is Labour that holds out the best prospect of achieving this goal.

Cameron turns EVEL after Scots indyref. EPA

The DUP cannot be happy with David Cameron’s stress on “English votes for English laws”, with the implication that the principles of UK unity and sharing and mutual sacrifice are at a discount in the eyes of the Tories. The DUP might see the bigger UK picture and acknowledge that it is eminently in the interests of the preservation of the union that Labour is helped to govern and to turn back the separatist tide in Scotland.

After all, the only unionist answer to the currently buoyant Scottish National Party (SNP) is surely Labour, the one party with strength throughout mainland Britain. Of course there is the major question of whether the DUP could stomach doing business with the party if it were dealing with the SNP. Perhaps these Celtic parties could co-exist as long as the Scots made no progress in fracturing the union or in pursuing a second independence referendum.

Either way the main point is this: it would make little sense from a unionist point of view for the DUP to throw its weight behind the Conservatives at this juncture. The party’s appeal is essentially English and its behaviour increasingly reveals a loss of faith in the idea of a multi-national, pluralist UK. This lack of fit cannot be easily discounted.