Who are the DUP and what do they stand for?

Northern Irish unionists could put the kibosh on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal

Arlene Foster
DUP leader Arlene Foster (L)
(Image credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Many Brexiteers rejoiced at the news emerging from Brussels today that UK and EU negotiators have reached an agreement over Brexit, which Boris Johnson has dubbed “a great new deal that takes back control”.

But as both Leavers and Remainers have come to know all too well since the referendum in 2016, when it comes to Brexit, nothing is ever that simple.

Enter, once again, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP): the conservative Northern Irish loyalists who have so often been a thorn in the side of government plans since their entry into a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Tories in 2017.

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The DUP has scuppered multiple attempts by the Conservatives to enact Brexit legislation that would affect Northern Ireland. And today, on the morning of a crucial EU summit in Brussels, DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party “could not support” the new deal because of “customs and consent issues”.

“As things stand, we could not support what is being suggested on customs and consent issues, and there is a lack of clarity on VAT,” Foster said in a statement reported by Reuters.

“We will continue to work with the Government to try and get a sensible deal that works for Northern Ireland and protects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.”

The decision by the DUP to shoot down the deal is a blow to Johnson, who is now in “close and continued contact” with the party as he “tries to shore up their support ahead of Saturday's key deadline to prevent a delay to Brexit”.

But as a result of their red lines on Northern Ireland, this small Eurosceptic group could be the unlikely saviour that Remainers have been waiting for.

“Liberal progressive Remainers are not going to rush to praise Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds, whose party are associated with social values considered antique,” writes John Rentoul in The Independent. “But they might have them to thank for stopping Brexit.”

So just who are the DUP and how did its leaders end up steering the Brexit debate?

Who are the DUP?

Founded by the late Ian Paisley in 1971, at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles, and now led by Arlene Foster, the DUP is the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and is currently the fifth-largest party in the Commons - with ten MPs.

The DUP nominally governs Northern Ireland with its republican rivals Sinn Fein as part of a power-sharing deal set out in the Good Friday Peace Agreement.

However, discord between the two parties means the Stormont Assembly has not sat for more than two years – a record among western democracies.

Why is it so important?

The DUP emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Westminster in the wake of the 2017 general election. The result left the then prime minister Theresa May politically weakened and unable to command a majority in Parliament, turning the DUP’s ten MPs into kingmakers in a “confidence and supply” agreement to prop up the Government.

This is a position its members have leveraged to maximum effect, exercising their effective veto over the government’s Brexit negotiations to ensure there is no deal that could cut off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

The confidence and supply agreement has remained in place since Johnson took over at Downing Street. Arlene Foster recently backed the PM’s suspension of Parliament, as the Belfast Telegraph reports.

Foster said that there was “nothing unusual” about the prorogation and that Johnson was “well within his rights” to ask for one.

What do they stand for?

Domestic issues: The DUP has long opposed and voted against introducing same-sex marriage and more liberal abortion laws to the province.

Its 2017 manifesto also included retaining the “triple lock” on pensions, cutting VAT for tourism businesses, abolishing air passenger duty and reviewing the price of ferries between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.The DUP was also the only major political group in Northern Ireland to oppose the Good Friday Agreement – before finally entering into a power-sharing government in 2007.

Brexit: Although Northern Ireland voted Remain by a majority of 56% to 44%, the DUP campaigned strongly for Brexit during the 2016 EU referendum.

Above all, though, the party defines itself by its support for the UK. This insistence on keeping the union whole has set up a series of red lines on Brexit that both May and Johnson have found all but impossible to square with their own promises to take the UK out of the customs union while maintaining a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the south.

Foster has repeatedly stated her desire not have a hard border – but, for her and her party, continued economic and political alignment with the rest of the UK is key.

This issue has once again reared its head today, with the party “digging in over the prospect of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, as well as the issues of consent regarding the suspended Stormont Assembly”, the Evening Standard says.

Westminster allies: The party’s socially conservative and unionist policies have long made it a natural ally of the Tories, with the 2017 confidence and supply agreement formalising this relationship.

The DUP has repeatedly ruled out working with Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, a supporter of Irish republicanism who maintained links with Sinn Fein during the Troubles in order to work for a resolution to the armed conflict.

Speaking in the aftermath of the 2017 election, Nigel Dodds, DUP leader at Westminster, said: “Under no circumstances would we support, help, prop up or any way assist Jeremy Corbyn to achieve any of his objectives given his track record.”

Yet past animosity may not be enough to trump current political reality.

“Ultimately the ‘U’ in DUP doesn't stand for not letting Jeremy Corbyn in, regardless of how they feel about his past connections and sympathies,” says Stephen Bush in the New Statesman. “It stands for “Unionist”. If the choice that the DUP ultimately face is between a threat to the Union and the risk of a Corbyn-led government, they won't have to think twice.”

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