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30 June 2017

Donít believe the doom-mongeringóthe DUP deal will be good for Northern Ireland

The £1bn grant will bring much-needed help to the region's poorestóand could also encourage a deal in Stormont

Arlene Fosterís deal will benefit a region which is still suffering from the Troubles. Photo: PA

“I can barely put into words my anger at the deal my party has done with the DUP,” said the Conservative MP Heidi Allen during the Queen’s Speech debate this week.

Allen is principled. Unlike others, she wasn’t basing her opposition on nonsensical complaints about the deal being a danger to the peace process because it would compromise the impartiality of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Instead, her objection is based on the distaste she feels at “the use of public funds to garner political control.” It is true that in an ideal world no government would stoop so low. Yet buying support has been a constant feature of politics in the United KingdomAllan went on to say that she could not “fault the DUP for wanting to achieve the very best for their residents in Northern Ireland.” And this they certainly did.

Help for the region’s poorest

Since it came under new management in 2007, the DUP has been increasingly trying to move beyond the bigoted image it earned while it was the fiefdom of the über-Protestant Reverend Ian Paisley. As vicious attacks rained down on them from the British press—mostly ill-informed—the party was patiently and toughly negotiating a £1 billion financial deal in the interests of everyone in the province.

Its main features were £400 million for badly needed infrastructure projects, £200m for improvement of the creaking health service (22 per cent of the entire population are on a hospital waiting list), £150m for ultra-fast broadband and £100m for tackling deprivation.

With a population of only 1.8 million, £1 billion should go a long way. While the deal has been condemned in some quarters as unfair given Northern Ireland’s relatively small population, I’ve spent years covering Northern Ireland and have much sympathy with the view that it has special needs. The last major study of poverty in the United Kingdom, which appeared in 2012, found deprivation to be disproportionately extensive there.

During the Troubles, it was predominantly the poor—Protestant and Catholic alike—whose communities were affected, as the terrorists in their midst wrecked businesses and deterred investment.

The leader of the party in Westminster, Nigel Dodds (whose distinguished First in law from Cambridge belies his representation in cartoons as a slavering thug in a bowler hat), reminded the Commons that three decades of “terrorism and violence” had also left a terrible legacy of high suicide rates and severe mental illness—for the treatment of which the DUP also secured £50 million.

In addition to all that, the DUP’s opposition to means testing for the winter fuel allowance and the abolition of the triple lock on pensions have given the Prime Minister the excuse she needed to dump two spectacularly unpopular manifesto commitments. This may be bad news for the Exchequer—but it is cheering for the old.

Progress in Stormont?

Contrary to the protestations of the doom-mongers, the deal also makes it more likely that an agreement can be reached to bring back the Northern Ireland Executive. Government in Stormont collapsed after Sinn Féin ducked out of the power-sharing agreement in January, allegedly over the so-called “cash for ash” scandal, but in truth more to placate their hardliners—and give left-wing critics in the Republic of Ireland less scope to accuse the party of imposing cuts as part of the government in Stormont.

Because it didn’t suit the strategy of Gerry Adams to revive the devolved government, the Northern Irish branch of his party have made impossible demands of the DUP.

These include a requirement for party leader Arlene Foster to step aside while the botched renewable heating scheme, over which she had presided, is being investigated—a move which would take her out of politics for at least a year—the introduction of same-sex marriage and a hugely expensive Irish language act that would require Irish speakers to be hired in every department and public office including the courts, despite serving no useful purpose in a province where only 0.2 per cent of the population speak Irish at home. (Its real purpose is as a weapon in Sinn Féin’s culture war against unionists.)

However now there is money to be dished out, Sinn Féin find themselves under serious pressure to get back into government ahead of the latest deadline for talks next week. If a face-saving deal is done, it will be another achievement of Mrs Foster’s deal with Mrs May.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards