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DUP leader Arlene Foster with deputy leader Nigel Dodds (right) and Simon Hamilton MLA (left) PA Wire/PA Images

Opinion 'The DUP has a talent for fusing bungled governance with election success'

This should give us all pause for reflection on the intricacies and ironies underlying our constitutional arrangements in these islands, writes Thomas Muinzer.

NOW THAT THE ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement negotiated between the Conservatives and the DUP has been up and running for some time at Westminster, this is a good time to reflect on some of the constitutional ironies that have been largely overlooked in the face of the drama surrounding these events.

It will be remembered that the DUP was parachuted in to prop up Theresa May’s Westminster majority after it crumbled in the face of Jeremy Corbyn’s inspired campaign at the UK’s most recent general election.

A powerful seat

A Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal played a primary role in collapsing Northern Ireland’s devolved government at the start of 2017, where it has been alleged that the DUP’s extreme mismanagement was projected to cost Northern Irish taxpayers £490m.  But what has been overlooked is the extent to which chaotic DUP governance has helped to create the actual conditions that propelled the DUP to a powerful seat at the right hand of national government.

The RHI scheme is a financial mechanism designed to boost the level of renewables used to generate heat in Northern Ireland.  The main problems concern biomass boilers, which make heat by burning wood pellets.

Confidence and supply

Arlene Foster, now leader of the DUP and heading up the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangements with Theresa May, was the Minister at the head of the responsible government department when the RHI scheme went ‘live’ in November 2012.

It has been operating elsewhere in the UK without incident, but Foster’s department adjusted the system for Northern Ireland, botching the actual payouts, so that the Northern Irish version would pay out more in subsidies than the cost of the fuel. Savvy investors were incentivised to burn more and more fuel – ‘cash for ash’ – leading to drastic costs to the taxpayer.

Foster resisted calls from all major parties across the unionist and nationalist divide (except her own) to step aside temporarily so an independent inquiry could take place.

The late Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein therefore stepped down as Deputy First Minister, collapsing the government and leading to fresh local elections (held 2 March 2017).

General election

With many aggravated by a lack of accountability, the DUP’s seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly contracted from 38 to 28, and Sinn Fein was suddenly snapping at their heels with a substantial increase in vote share at 27.

This remains something of an unprecedented outcome in a region where unionist representation traditionally heavily outnumbers nationalist representation amongst the two biggest parties.

The scene was now set for the general election (June 2017). At this time the DUP was holding eight seats at Westminster (with Sinn Fein, which refuses to take its seats, holding four.

Siobhan Fenton suggested quite reasonably in the New Statesman that:

[a] strange mix of factors have aligned which, if [Sinn Fein] manages its strategy well, could see it increase its number of MPs from four to seven. This – and expected DUP losses – could see Sinn Féin become Northern Ireland’s largest party at Westminster.

This anticipated correctly Sinn Fein’s increase from 4 to 7 MPs, however, far from imploding, the DUP had wonderful success, blossoming from 8 to 10 MPs and achieving its leverage to prop up the flagging Conservatives.

Why the success, given the DUP’s disastrous RHI debacle, its big losses at the Assembly elections etc?

In answer, the DUP’s semi-collapse at the March 2017 Assembly elections caused panic in the unionist community, and the general election saw unionists turn out in force for the DUP in the face of a perceived nationalist voting surge.

Northern Ireland’s culture of voting along confining ethno-religious lines, a post-RHI panic-voting period, and a conveniently timed national election all combined to allow the DUP to be rewarded for the RHI bungling, jumping from eight to 10 MPs.

In need of something to prop up her crumbling government after Corbyn’s unforeseen election success, the scene was perfectly set for Theresa May to come calling. The launchpad of the RHI scandal propelled the DUP into a ‘kingmaker’ position on the national stage.

Turning controversies into success

The DUP has long exhibited an ability to fuse serious controversies with serious election success.

One thinks of the ‘Irisgate’ scandal, where DUP MLA Iris Robinson used her position to surreptitiously influence loan streams relating to a young lover’s business plans. Or the ‘Namagate’ property scandal, in which parliamentary privilege was used to allege that the DUP’s previous leader, Peter Robinson, was involved (Robinson has strenuously denied any wrongdoing).

But with ‘RHIgate’, to coin a phrase, a talent for fusing bungled governance with election success has been projected far beyond Northern Ireland’s borders for the first time, straight to the right hand of UK government itself.

This should give us all pause for reflection on the intricacies and ironies underlying our constitutional arrangements in these islands.

Thomas Muinzer is a freelance writer and Lecturer in Law at Stirling University.

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