Lucius Winslow is on course to become a corporate lawyer in the City, and has a Master’s degree in Politics from the Queen’s University of Belfast.
Last week, Paul Goodman wrote in these pages that the Conservatives were eyeing up Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party in the event of another hung Parliament.
It is certainly correct that the Conservatives should plan for this sort of contingency. Notwithstanding the many advantages David Cameron has in advance of the 2015 election, a biased election system and the rise of UKIP only make victory a heavily caveated possibility.
The DUP currently have eight seats in Parliament. However, it is extremely likely this will rise to nine in the next election, as the Alliance Party’s seat in East Belfast (a Unionist bastion) returns to the fold.
Nine seats is not to be sniffed at, especially as they will most likely sell themselves to the Conservative cause quite cheaply. This is for several reasons.
Northern Irish Unionism has a very long history of distrusting the Labour party. This is hardly surprising, given the at-times out-and-out sympathy Labour have had with nationalism, and amongst certain elements even the IRA.
To be fair, the Tories have also had their share of difficulties, most notably the complete collapse of the relationship following the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and even the On-the-Runs scandal of earlier this year. The Conservatives have also alienated themselves specifically to the DUP due to their previous attempted link-up with the Ulster Unionists. That project became a shambles, a shambles evident from the stupid name if nothing else (it was UCUNF…).
The Northern Irish Unionist establishment is ultimately extremely mistrustful of the British government, of whatever hue. And, it is submitted, they have every right to be so.
However despite all of that, Unionists, including the DUP, know in their hearts that it is the Conservative and Unionist Party that has got their backs, not Labour – a party which is actually aligned with a nationalist party, and which forbids Labour members in Northern Ireland standing for election.
Nor are any of the aforementioned difficulties such that they cannot be overcome. For, as Kenneth Clarke pointed out, ‘in the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman.’
It is unwise to speculate too much, but I would suggest the DUP could be bribed in several ways. Bribed, incidentally, is exactly the right word, because the DUP have never made any secret of their desire to extract a good deal for Northern Ireland if presented with the opportunity; and constantly rolled into Downing Street during tight parliamentary votes in the last Labour term, offering to sell themselves for some provincial concession.
The first and most obvious bribe, and one which would almost certainly form a red line for a DUP negotiating team, would be a reduction in corporation tax. Ireland’s rate is 12 per cent, by 2015 the UK’s will be 20 per cent. One can see their point: that gap hurts Belfast. As George Osborne is famously keen on corporate tax cuts, this is hardly a deal-breaker. Either a Northern Ireland-only cut, or (more likely) a further UK cut could be arranged.
If the Chancellor did go all-in for a deep corporation tax cut he would probably win the DUP over on that pledge alone. The only other thing to do would be an implicit understanding that Westminster would reduce meddling in Northern Ireland. Given London’s almost comprehensive weariness of the Ulster question this is also somewhat unlikely to be a problem.
Further goodies can always be granted: a more generous Barnett formula; further devolution on specific matters; a comparative isolation of Sein Finn, etc.
One risk, as Paul further identified last week, is the capacity of a DUP-Tory link to destabilise the province. I would respectively submit that this is unlikely. If arresting Gerry Adams doesn’t bring down law and order, I doubt much will. Turnout at Northern Irish elections is woeful, and that is indicative of an increasing apathy in the province. Furthermore, Stormont politicians have been at each other’s throats since 2007, but the permanent unionist-nationalist coalition is just that, permanent.
Ultimately, Conservatives should quietly be counting nine more MPs in their column. For, unless Labour is so obviously ahead in a hung Parliament (as the Tories were in 2010), the DUP will likely gravitate to the blue team.