10 Jun 2017

UK election powerbrokers: who are the DUP?

11:41 am on 10 June 2017

The Democratic Unionists look set to be powerbrokers in the British parliament after the Conservatives lost their overall majority in a disastrous snap election.

Prime Minister Theresa May has said she would form a government with the support of the DUP, though it is not clear what kind of arrangement this will be.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) deputy leader Nigel Dodds, at right,  and leader Arlene Foster. celebrate Dodds winning his Belfast North seat.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster, at left, and deputy leader Nigel Dodds on election night. Photo: AFP

Despite DUP party leader Arlene Foster warning it would be difficult for Mrs May to remain prime minister, discussions are going on behind the scenes.

The party has moved on to the political centre stage but most people will be in the dark about what it stands for.

The DUP website crashed on Friday morning after a surge of interest, and DUP was also one of the most searched terms on Google.

They are pro-union (not Europe but UK), pro-Brexit and socially conservative.

The party, which returned 10 MPs to Westminster, opposes same-sex marriage and is anti-abortion - abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland, except in specific medical cases.

Look back on RNZ's live coverage of the election

Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University London, told Saturday Morning the party has a controversial reputation.

"To their critics they're a bunch of authoritarian, illiberal bible-bashers who are deeply sectarian and not the kind of party that anybody in Britain would ideally want holding the government, as it were, to ransom.

"I think that's a little bit of a stereotype - but there is as often is the case with stereotypes some truth to it.

"They're certainly more socially conservative and right wing than most Tory party people in the UK."

But they're more likely to be more interested in getting a good deal from the government for Northern Ireland, he said

"Also, they will seek to influence Brexit negotiations so that the Northern Irish economy does not suffer from the creation of some kind of hard border between the Republic of Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland.

"The Catholic nationalist parties and the Protestant unionist parties in Northern Ireland have a common interest in a porous, softer border."

The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, said she had been given an assurance by Mrs May that gay rights would not be eroded in return for DUP support.

Ms Davidson, who plans to marry her partner in the near future, said the prime minister assured her any Conservative deal with the party would not affect LGBTI rights.

Flanked by her members of Parliament, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader, and former Northern Ireland First Minister, Arlene Foster (centre), poses for a photograph outside the Stormont Hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on June 9, 2017, following the result of the general election.

DUP leader Arlene Foster, centre, flanked by her MPs in Belfast. Photo: AFP

Brexit, climate change and creationism

DUP East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson, a devout climate change denier, was once Northern Ireland's environment minister.

Mervyn Storey, the party's former education spokesman, once called for creationism - the belief that human life did not evolve over millions of years but was created by God - to be taught alongside evolution in science classes.

He has also objected to an exhibition on evolution in the Ulster Museum and signs at the Giant's Causeway in his North Antrim constituency.

Then there's the party's historical links to loyalist paramilitaries.

During this general election campaign, the DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly received the endorsement of the three biggest loyalist paramilitary organisations.

Although the DUP said it did not accept their support, in her acceptance speech, Mrs Little-Pengelly thanked those who came out to vote for her, singling out several loyalist working class areas in Belfast.

In December, the DUP's Trevor Clarke was criticised by Sir Elton John after the politician admitted he did not know heterosexual people could contract HIV until a charity explained the facts to him.

The DUP was a wholehearted supporter of Brexit and got heavily involved in the Leave campaign.

After Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland becomes an EU frontier and the DUP is not in favour of a so-called hard border. This means no checkpoints or intrusive enforcement.

But the party's vision of Brexit is a fairly hard one - it was the most Eurosceptic party in the UK before the ascent of UKIP.

The party also wants to leave the EU customs union and end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, ensuring that in future British law is supreme.

One red line is the idea of Northern Ireland being granted some sort of "special status" when Brexit comes to pass - the DUP will not stand for any arrangement that physically sets the region apart from anywhere else in the UK.

Its key slogan during the campaign turned out to be rather prescient: "A vote for the DUP team is a vote to send 'Team Northern Ireland' to Westminster. It is a team that has real influence".

- BBC / RNZ

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