Has the Wells affair scuppered a Westminster deal for the DUP?

28 Apr 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Jul 2015

Peter Robinson: still a potential power broker

Scope analyses the fall-out from the Wells affair and concludes we should not be writing off the DUP just yet.

It looks like the BBC and other broadcasters made a very bad call indeed when they excluded the Northern Irish parties from the election debates.

Jim Wells’ comments that child abuse was more rife amongst gay couples has led to huge interest in Britain around the prospect of the DUP having an influence in forming a government, even if that attention has not been to the party’s benefit.

It was ironic that the day Wells resigned The Guardian published an article from the DUP’s Nigel Dodds warning that the Conservatives risk losing the DUP’s support in consequence of its stance on Scotland.

Dodd’s argument, which is well constructed, is that Conservative talk of English votes for English laws fuelled what he calls “nationalist paranoia” and is potentially damaging to the union.

There will be elements in the Cameron camp who will be delighted to see a rift opening up with Dodds’ party.

To heap irony on irony this is largely because political discourse in Northern Ireland is so different to that in the rest of the UK, to the extent that many of our politicians are regarded as beyond the pale – a phrase first used to differentiate the “wild and ungoverned” parts of Ireland from the area successfully occupied by the Norman English.

Sinn Fein always has been. Even if it decided at the last minute to take up its Westminster seats it is very hard to imagine any of the mainstream Westminster parties queuing up to strike deals with it.

And if Gerry Adams had been included in the televised election debate you can bet your life he would have been excluded from the group hug that the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru enjoyed.

For the DUP the challenge is very different. If you were to roll back the years Ian Paisley was a very divisive figure in Britain. Yes, he was regarded as a dangerous pedagogue by some, but there were others who admired him. These were the days when Mary Whitehouse was a significant figure and Paisley stood for values many shared and felt were lost. In a strange way he was a Nigel Farage-type maverick to some English people. Except of course he was teetotal, wore a dog collar and quoted Scripture.

Yet whilst times have changed on the other side of the Irish Sea, there are strong elements within the DUP who have not and never will.

Politics in Britain are now exclusively secular. Politicians don’t do religion, even when they practice it. There are many reasons for that, some of which are practical; expressing yourself as being unduly devout and motivated by religious sensitivities lays you open to charges of hypocrisy whenever you do anything which offends others’ sense of morality. Politicians are often in that space. And in an increasingly secular world religious references and motivation have less and less resonance, especially amongst the young.

The DUP is different. It was founded by a clergyman and many members and voters have strong religious convictions with an evangelical Christian flavour. Senior figures in the party are unembarrassed about that. They say that they are motivated by their beliefs and that it is entirely appropriate that these convictions should guide them when it comes to devising policy. Jim Wells, of course is one of their number.

Fifty years ago that would not have been contentious in Britain. It is now.

The Liberal Democrats are making much use of the DUP in their attempts to position themselves as the “respectable” coalition partner.

Last week they conjured an image of the Tories being returned to power in coalition with UKIP and the DUP and launched a website www.blukip.org which parodies the policies of the latter parties.

Leader Nick Clegg said: “It is a rightwing alliance that brings together people who don’t believe in climate change; who reject gay rights; who want the death penalty back; and people who want to scrap human rights legislation and privatise our schools and hospitals.”

At the launch playing cards were handed out to the press with quotes from DUP politicians. One, of Jonathan Bell, quoted the OFMdFM junior minister saying abortion has “destroyed more viable human life” than Adolf Hitler. Another was of Tom Buchanan saying, “Homosexuality is an abomination.”

All this before the Wells controversy.

So is the DUP beyond the pale in Britain and too toxic to do a deal with?

Interestingly, although Wells has been condemned by both the Tories and Labour, neither of the big parties has ruled out an arrangement. And it can’t have escaped their attention that the DUP has worked with Sinn Fein albeit not always happily for the past 15 years, so the party has experience of working with others.

That does seem significant when you consider the lengths that the Labour Party has gone to, for example, to rule out a deal with the SNP.

Finally of course LGBT matters are devolved in Northern Ireland so the main parties may believe they have an “out”.

There’s no question that the Wells controversy has made the prospect of the DUP doing a deal with the Tories or Labour less likely - to liberal Britain the party has a bad smell about it.

But stranger things have happened in British politics, it’s far too early to be writing the DUP off just yet.

However surely it must concern a party that wraps itself in the flag and defines itself by its Britishness that it is so out of tune with mainstream British sensitivities on social and moral issues?


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